As is often the case following a national tragedy, France’s political leaders have become more popular since the January terrorist attacks in Paris—even the roundly despised President Hollande. As four million people marched in solidarity with the victims in the days following the massacre, the government’s swift action against the terrorists and uncompromising rhetoric were widely praised. Yet it was Prime Minister Manuel Valls in particular who emerged as the key leader during this crisis.That was not only a simple rally-’round-the-flag effect. To many, Valls’s background and past stances, often lonely ones, made him an ideally suitable candidate for representing the “Spirit of January 11.” Echoing positions that Valls has long held, many politicians and pundits have called for a restoration of traditional republican values like civic assimilation, secularism, and state authority.A Socialist Party member and man of the left, Valls has built up his public image by confronting his own party’s taboos regarding economic reforms, security, and even the problems of integration and Islamism. He made it clear after the January attacks that France was at “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity.” While he acknowledged that prejudice against Islam exists in France, he told Jeffrey Goldberg that he refuses to use the term Islamophobia “because it is used to silence critics of Islam.”Valls is no conservative, however; he is, rather, an adept triangulator who doesn’t shy away from infuriating the right. His denunciation of a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in France’s suburban ghettos, which have been called the “lost territories of the Republic” as well as hotbeds of violence and radicalism, infuriated the right and shattered the short-lived political truce that followed the attacks. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy fumed, saying he was “appalled” by Valls’s use of the word “apartheid.”The Prime Minister also stands out for his frequent and vocal denunciations of the increasing persecution faced by French Jews. As many of France’s Jewish citizens left for Israel after a record year for anti-Semitic violence, Valls declared that “if 100,000 Jews leave France, France won’t be France anymore”, underlining the special relationship that French Jews have enjoyed with the Republican institutions that granted them rights as citizens. He fought hard last year to prevent the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, the inventor of an inverted Nazi salute now popular in the banlieues, from performing his show, and banned some of the pro-Palestinian marches that degenerated into violence during the Gaza War last summer.For this, Valls has earned condemnation and even anti-Semitic slurs against his family. The 92-year-old former Socialist Foreign Minister Roland Dumas suggested, in an interview that was widely condemned, that Valls could be under the “Jewish influence” of his wife, violinist Anne Groivin. He is a regular target of Islamist websites and openly despised by the extreme right; in an interview that got him in much trouble last week, the historic leader of the far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen claimed Valls, who is Spanish-born, had “only been French for 30 years while [Le Pen] had been French for 1000 years”.It is no wonder, then, that Valls has received national and international attention after the heinous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. If his approval rating has dropped since January, he is still the most popular Socialist figure in the country and perhaps his party’s main hope in the 2017 presidential election. A recent poll even showed him to be the only Socialist who could deprive the UMP of a presidential victory. But even if he has the public in his corner, will this maverick Socialist make it to France’s highest office?France faces a moment of reckoning for its identity and values, and the sense of decline and doubt is only deepening. While the feeling of gloom is nothing new and largely part of the national identity, the country now runs the risk of being captured by a rising extreme right. Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration and Europhobic Front National, now more popular than ever and embarked on a strategy of “de-demonization” to make itself respectable, is poised to benefit from any failure of the mainstream parties to defend France’s secular, republican model. Le Pen is riding high, having come first in the 2014 European elections, the first time the Front National led a national election in its history. In addition, a recent family crisis facing Marine and her father could well provide her with the opportunity to get rid of the party’s founder, whose history of racial and anti-Semitic statements is a turnoff for mainstream voters. The current voting system, under which she would need to win a second-round run-off with an absolute majority, makes a presidential victory in 2017 far-fetched for Le Pen, but her rise has become a major flashpoint in French politics. Valls himself has expressed his “fear” that France would “smash” into the National Front.The Prime Minister’s challenge, if he is to counter Le Pen from the left, will be to address the concerns over French identity, security, and decline that she taps into without falling prey to the National Front’s xenophobic tendencies. The French political establishment has generally prefered to use Le Pen as a scarecrow, insisting on her party’s extremist and racist roots rather than confronting some of the country’s ills. Valls will find it difficult to steer his party toward confronting these problems, especially as Le Pen becomes a greater and more vocal political threat.However difficult a task it may be, Valls is well-placed to shake the Socialists out of their torpor and force them to address France’s political crisis. He rose through the party ranks as an isolated centrist on economic affairs and a tough-talking law-and-order politician devoted to traditional republican principles. An heir to a losing social democratic tradition similar to Tony Blair’s Labour or Bill Clinton’s Democrats, he was a protégé of Michel Rocard, a reformist but technocratic Prime Minister in the late 1980s, who never managed to match Francois Mitterrand’s Machiavellian machinations and political skill. The next great champion of French social democrats, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, left his hopes of election behind in a New York City hotel room in 2012, yet Valls may be capable of outdistancing them both. He has more political savvy than the dull Rocard and does not seem to share DSK’s fatal inclinations.Moreover, Valls has presented himself as a critic and would-be redeemer of the Socialists since the beginning of his career. In a 2005 book on secularism, he blamed his Socialist “comrades” for reneging on the principles that uphold the republic and abandoning their long-standing secularism—the consequence of a long struggle against Catholic influence on the French polity—when it came to Islam. The only prominent Socialist to do so, Valls voted in favor of the conservative-backed ban of the niqab (full-face covering) in 2010, while most others (including Hollande) did not take part in the vote.His denunciations of “Islamofascism” appear influenced by liberal anti-totalitarian intellectuals from the left, a small and shrinking minority. He seems to favor Pascal Bruckner, one of the “new philosophers” who, like fellow traveler Bernard Henri Levy, have criticized the left for sometimes turning a blind eye to the anti-Semitism or intolerance coming from impoverished Muslim minorities. In this, Valls’s critic of Islamism does not stem from an exclusive vision of French identity or Christian roots but rather from the left’s universalism and focus on equal rights for women and tolerance. This liberal interventionist tradition, influential in the United States and in the UK, has never been prominently represented in French politics, except by maverick figures such as Doctors Without Borders founder Bernard Kouchner, who rose to be Foreign Minister under President Sarkozy.With such influences, can Valls be seen as a useful critic on the inside of the Socialist Party, or has he left leftism behind? His choice of historical associations is telling. When looking for precedents, Socialist leaders usually like to refer to the historical legacy of Jean Jaures, the pacifist internationalist who was murdered on the eve of the declaration of World War I, or Leon Blum, the Prime Minister who in 1936 briefly swept the country with a wave of ambitious social reforms. Valls, however, chose neither of these, instead putting himself under the patronage of Georges Clemenceau, of whom he keeps a portrait in his office.Clemenceau, nicknamed “Le Tigre” or “le Pere la Victoire” for his leadership at the end of World War I, was a unique figure in French politics, ultimately neither of the right nor the left. He rose from the radical left, was opposed to colonialism, defended secularism and was the editor of l’Aurore, the newspaper that published Zola’s “J’accuse” (for which he found the title), the great defense of Dreyfus against anti-Semitism. He was also a tough and authoritative leader: he crushed strikes as Interior Minister and did not back down from imposing rigorous limitations on pacifist or defeatist speech during the war. His last years, when he advocated for tough retaliatory measures against Germany, brought him closer to the nationalist right. For Clemenceau, respect for state authority is indivisible from the universal values of the republican left: secularism, equality, and assimilation. Valls’s choice of patrons shows how eager he is to distinguish himself from the Socialist rank and file, a strategy that may be to his advantage, but also may lead to his marginalization.In a modern-day, and paradoxical, parallel, Valls is very often compared to Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s last conservative president. Neither comes from the traditional French elitist mold. Valls was born in Barcelona and only acquired French citizenship at age 20. His father was an artist who fled the Franquist regime and refused to return until Franco’s fall. Valls did not graduate from the French Grandes Ecoles, but rather, like Sarkozy, rose as an activist through the inner ranks of the Socialist Party, becoming Prime Minister Jospin’s communication adviser. Valls was then elected Mayor and MP for Evry, a southern Paris suburb, facing many of the cultural and security challenges that he now faces as Prime Minister. Like Sarkozy, he gained popularity as a blunt-speaking Interior Minister, confronting French taboos on immigration and crime. (They are not unaware of their similarities. Both men, potential rivals for the 2017 presidency, were recently seen sitting next to each other during a Paris soccer game, seemingly enjoying their conversation. Valls even reportedly turned down an offer to join Sarkozy’s cabinet in 2007.) Sarkozy epitomizes the outspoken outsider who rises to the top, and though Valls may wish to follow in his footsteps, he has a great many challenges before him.His centrist positions may ingratiate him with the public, but Valls has been more successful in losing political allies than winning them. Prior to the election of the Hollande government, he spent his time in opposition attacking Socialist Party totems, calling for the party to drop the adjective “Socialist” from its name and to “unlock” the 35-hour work week. In an open letter in 2009, Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party at the time, invited Valls to leave it if he was so unhappy. His brutal style can be off-putting and is a target of criticism, even mockery, for the opposition. Popular with the public and still close and loyal to the President (despite a looming rivalry in 2017), his support within the party establishment is tepid.When Valls was appointed Prime Minister, the Greens left the coalition government in protest. They were quickly followed by a wave of resignations from key government figures like Economics minister Arnaud Montebourg, who protested what they called the government’s “austerity measures.” Unfettered, Valls appointed a 37-year-old Rothschild banker, Emmanuel Macron, as the new economics minister, to the horror of his leftist base. (Macron is said to have joked that France with Hollande’s proposed 75 percent tax rate would be “Cuba without the sun.”) A group of “Frondeurs” (rebels) has now formed in Parliament against his government’s attempts at reforming France’s economy, emboldened by Syriza’s victory in Greece.This alienation of the left contributed to his lackluster performance in the last election. After winning a disappointing 6 percent at the Socialist primary, a dispiriting 5th-place showing, he fully supported Hollande in the 2012 general election and was made Interior Minister as a reward. Hollande appointed him Prime Minister in April 2014, in an bold move, turning to one of the most popular politicians in his cabinet to save a struggling presidency then only two years into his term. Valls’s popularity, however, largely came from positions that were popular among the center and the right.In the next few months, Valls’s political future be severely tested and he will have to deliver more than high-flying rhetoric. He has to confront the country’s chronic economic woes; with 0.4 percent growth in 2014, and 1.2 percent now projected for 2015, France is one of Europe’s “problem children.” Unemployment stands at 10.3 percent, and at a shocking 23.4 percent for youth under 25. With a deficit of 4.0 percent of GDP in 2014 (down from 4.3 in 2013, the government recently announced), France has failed to meet European targets. It was obliged to negotiate another postponement from the European Commission in March, and is now increasingly under pressure from Brussels. But Valls’s main squabble, once again, is with his increasingly rebellious majority.In February, his government survived a censure vote that, had it been adopted, would have forced his resignation. The vote was a consequence of Valls’s surprise move to force the passage of a reform bill against a reluctant (and slim) Socialist majority at the National Assembly, using a little-used provision in the French constitution that allows the government to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote. The “Macron law” (named for the Economics Minister) intends to unshackle various economic sectors, like transportation or tourism, from regulatory burdens. This authoritarian move was seen as a failure for the government, especially since the bill had been largely emptied of its substance after more than 200 hours of parliamentary discussions. The rival UMP denounced it as a “denial of democracy”, though it could only criticize the law, rather disingenuously, for being insufficiently ambitious. But this Pyrrhic victory made one thing abundantly clear: a war is developing between the Hollande government and the Socialist base.On top of that, with Nicolas Sarkozy coming out of semi-retirement in November to head the UMP, the opposition is finally getting back in marching order. The “departmental” local elections in March gave the UMP a clear and unexpected first-place finish when most polls predicted a tie with the FN, a victory largely attributed to Sarkozy’s combative campaigning and strong language on identity issues. But “Sarko” has left many disappointed by his first term and will have to face serious challengers in his own primary in 2016—this early triumph is not dispositive, and the 2017 race is still very much up in the air.Along with the growing belligerence of his party and the re-emergence of the opposition, Valls faces one more challenge as a presidential candidate: he will have to navigate around his boss, President Francois Hollande, and Hollande’s legendary caution. In the bicephalous French executive system, the Prime Minister can only go as far as the President would allow him. Despite catastrophic polls, Hollande, a skilled tactician, has not ruled out running again in two year and might even see Le Pen’s rise as an opportunity to eliminate the UMP in the first round (the opposite could, of course, happen). It is unclear whether the Socialists will hold a primary or let the incumbent run again unchallenged, but a series of electoral defeats, starting with March’s departmental elections, will force a sober assessment on the party leaders.The equation for Valls is complex: to run, he will have to rely on a rebellion from within the Socialist ranks against Hollande. But this very base is even more hostile to him than they are to Hollande…unless he appears to be the only one able to bring re-election to a dispirited Socialist camp. Meanwhile, the right has realized that Valls’s popularity is perhaps the main obstacle to its coming back to power in 2017 and is now focusing its attacks on him. Dramatic events have brought this unique figure to the fore at a critical moment. Valls will have to sell his plan to his political family and come up with results; the task is considerable.
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Published on: April 16, 2015
An Unlikely SocialistCan Valls Lead France?
France’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, may be just the person to shake the Socialist Party out of its torpor and return it to fighting trim. Does he have a shot at the presidency in 2017?