France's 'Leftist Sarko' Popular Minister Rankles Ailing Socialists

While President Hollande's authority crumbles, his interior minister, Manuel Valls, has become France's most popular politician -- much to the chagrin of his own party.



It's not a good Monday morning for Manuel Valls, France's interior minister and star of its Socialist government. He looks tense as he sits in the studio of the Europe 1 radio station. His suit is perfectly tailored, as always, but his handsome face seems tired. He is frowning and looks irritated.

Valls has come to the station to defend his boss, French President François Hollande, who has damaged his own reputation in an absurd way in recent days. Hollande has few enthusiastic supporters anymore. The French economy is ailing, and the president is seen as indecisive. And now even the little authority he still has is in jeopardy, all because of a Roma girl named Leonarda Dibrani.

The 15-year-old was deported to Kosovo in early October after her family's asylum application was rejected. The police had picked up Leonarda from a school outing, which triggered outrage among the left. Valls, on the other hand, defended the police's actions.

Once again, Hollande was forced to resolve a deep conflict within his government: His choice was to either allow the family to return and not support Valls, or to confirm the legality of the deportation and arouse the ire of his party's left wing.

The president managed to choose a third -- and even worse -- option. In a televised address from the Elysée Palace, of the sort normally reserved for important affairs of state, he declared that Leonarda, "and only she alone," would be allowed to return to France. The family, however, would be denied re-entry.

After airing Hollande's statement, the TV stations went live to Leonarda in Mitrovica, as if the whole thing were a giant reality show. She responded that the president was "heartless" and that she wasn't a "female dog." Once again, in trying to satisfy all parties involved, Hollande had only infuriated everyone.

The only person Hollande could send before the media last Monday was Valls. Paradoxically, the country's most popular politician was being forced to defend France's highest-ranking and most unpopular man, while hiding the fact that he does not approve of Hollande's decision either.

The interior minister sits out his 12 minutes in the studio, praises Hollande's "generous gesture" to the girl and says: "I think the criticism of the president is very unfair." If he weren't visible on camera, and if the audience could only hear his deep, reassuring voice, he would almost sound believable. Valls is a professional who was in charge of communication in Hollande's election campaign. At a certain point, the show's host says: "You're really doing great here today."

On the Far-Right of the Left

The story of Manuel Valls is one of a rapid ascent. In a country whose political class is now despised, the interior minister still manages to garner high approval ratings, most recently at 56 percent. Hollande is stagnating at a historical low of 23 percent, while Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and the rest of Hollande's government aren't faring much better.

For months, Valls' fellow cabinet ministers have had to endure positive media stories about him. The weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur once dubbed him the "vice president" on its cover, though France's parliamentary system has no such office. According to a new poll, Valls stands a better chance of winning the 2017 election than Hollande does. This is the kind of news that arouses envy among his fellow Socialists.

They are suspicious of Valls because one source of his popularity is his general disregard for the traditionalist mainstream of the French left. Many Socialists doubt that he is even one of them in spirit. In Germany, Valls stances would make him one of the many conservative members of the country's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But, in France's Socialist Party, he is viewed as a right-winger in disguise.

In 2008, a collection of interviews with Valls was published under the title "Enough With the Old Socialism. It's Time to Finally Be a Leftist!" When he ran in the Socialist Party presidential primary in 2011, he proposed removing the word "socialist" from the party's name, abolishing the 35-hour workweek and lowering labor costs. The result: He only captured 6 percent of the vote.

When the party came into power in May 2012, it had spent years in the opposition, and yet the renewal of the party Valls had championed largely failed to materialize. This is one of the reasons the Socialist Party is struggling so much in the government today. "The problem with the left is that once it is in power, it starts theorizing over what it should do," Valls once said. "I wish it had done that beforehand."

Valls, on the other hand, sees himself as a hands-on politician, especially when it comes to dealing with immigration, which is naturally part of his job as interior minister. Indeed, with his tough stance on immigrants, he often sparks disagreements within the government. In many respects, he differs only slightly from his conservative predecessors. "Security is neither left nor right," he says.

His uncompromising approach to the Roma is especially controversial. Although there are only 15,000 to 20,000 Roma living in France, they are a perennial issue in domestic politics. Like the government under former President Nicolas Sarkozy did, Valls has had the authorities destroy illegal Roma camps and expel their residents, a policy for which the European Court of Human Rights recently condemned France. In September, Valls said that "only a minority of Roma want to integrate," and that their lifestyle conflicts with that of the French population. According to a survey, 77 percent of the French agreed with Valls.

Minister of Territorial Equality and Housing Cécile Duflot, a member of Europe Ecology - The Greens, promptly accused him of jeopardizing "the republican pact." As is always the case when there is strife, Hollande chose not to comment on the spat within the left, which went on for days.

Hollande knows that he cannot do without his only minister still capable of mustering enthusiasm. He needs Valls to fend off the right-wing populist National Front, which could become the strongest force in the 2014 European and communal elections. And this explains why Valls is currently spending so much time on the road.

Charisma through Seriousness

It's early October in a gray suburb of Chambéry, in the Alpine foothills of the Savoy region. As Valls walks along a street lined with concrete blocks and concrete towers, women wave to him enthusiastically from balconies, while men shake his hand below. A woman in a headscarf forces her way through the crowd and shouts: "I voted for you!"

The minister holds his folded hands in front of him like a shield. He is surrounded by dozens of reporters and members of his delegation, and is protected by beefy bodyguards. It's the kind of commotion that only a president usually generates.

Valls isn't a tall man, but he looks significantly younger than 51. With his black hair, penetrating gaze and strong chin, he exudes the virility of a police officer. In the kind of survey that can only exist in France, the magazine Elle asked its female readers in July which minister they would like to sleep with. Valls emerged victorious, with a 20 percent lead over Arnaud Montebourg, the flamboyant minister of industrial renewal.

Although he rarely smiles, Valls exudes the air of a reliable father and family man. He has four children, is divorced and has been married to the attractive violinist Anna Gravoin for three years. In August, a photo of the attractive couple kissing appeared on a spread in Paris Match.

The minister can be gruff in his interactions with others and isn't particularly outgoing. When he was working as the press spokesman of former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, he sometimes pushed aside photographers as forcefully as if he were Royal's bodyguard.

A Divisive Mayor

Valls never seems entirely relaxed in his interactions with the public. On this day in Chambéry, he wants to demonstrate that security is one of his priorities. He visits a police station and then a shopping arcade, where he shakes hands with a woman who runs a kiosk, a barber and an Arab butcher. "How are you?" he asks. "Good, until now," says the butcher. Then Valls walks over to the pharmacist, who complains about the fact that there are too few customers and too many foreigners.

"You can't lose touch with the reality of people's lives," Valls says.

A year ago, he installed a "priority security zone" in Chambéry, where police officers are now patrolling with video cameras on their chests. In a nearby administrative building, citizens dutifully give the visitor from Paris their accounts of local successes on such issues as integration, vandalism and Islamism.

But then a woman blurts out that there is still great insecurity in the city, and that the drug trade and vandalism have actually not subsided. The city representatives try to stop her, but she is undeterred. "And Mr. Minister, what you said about the Roma was right." Valls thanks the woman for speaking her mind. And then he says to the group: "You don't have to claim that everything is going well just because the minister is here!"

Before becoming a cabinet minister, Valls was mayor of Évry, a city on the outskirts of Paris. It has a large population of young people, immigrants and blue-collar workers. A video from his days as mayor shows Valls walking through the local flea market. There are many dark-skinned people in the picture, and Valls says: "Now this is a nice picture of Évry. Come on, give me a few whites, a few blancos, a few blancs."

The video caused a stir, but Valls didn't apologize. Instead, he said that he was opposed to ghettoization, that the population had to be mixed, and that there should also be blacks living in white upper-class neighborhoods. Indeed, Valls describes himself as "one of those leftists who speaks the truth," or part of the "efficient left." He earned a reputation as a law-and-order politician in Évry, where he doubled the size of the police force. He also fought plans to build a supermarket offering halal products.

The 'Leftist Sarko'

Perhaps one reason Valls is so uncompromising toward immigrants is that he is one himself. He was born in Barcelona to a Catalan father and a Swiss mother from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, and he only became a French citizen at 20. He grew up in France, he notes, at a time when it "wasn't as hip to be Spanish as it is today." This is the furthest he'll go in talking about difficulties. He is not a man who likes to offer insights into his own feelings.

Thanks to his parents and the French republican school system, he learned to be a Frenchman, and he doesn't stop declaring his love for his adopted country. "You have to be proud to be a Frenchman, to be part of this nation, with its great history," he says. As mayor, he introduced ceremonies for new citizens in which the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise," was sung.

Despite his patriotism, Valls is proud of his origins and doesn't try to hide them. Unlike other French ministers, he also gives interviews in Spanish and Catalan. When he was recently asked on a Barcelona radio station whether a Catalan could become France's president, he replied that "it is possible" although the question isn't being raised. He did note, however, that Nicolas Sarkozy "was of Hungarian origin."

Valls is often compared with Sarkozy, and some even call him the "leftist Sarko."

They both have foreign roots and a penchant for law and order in common. But they also share another important trait: Both launched their careers without having attended France's elite École Nationale d'Administration (ENA). When Valls was once asked what he and Sarkozy had in common, he replied: "Energy."

At the moment, Valls is doing his best to veil his big ambitions. But it's quite possible that Hollande will appoint him prime minister soon if one day he tries to embark on a new beginning. Hardly anyone doubts that Valls will run for the presidency again in the future. But if Hollande runs again, which is widely expected, Valls will have to wait until 2022.

At the end of the day in Savoy, Valls visits a national firefighters' convention, where he is greeted with great enthusiasm. The men demonstrate their skills, using a helicopter to simulate a rescue from the roof of a building. When he walks into a concession stand, they don't let him leave without a beer in his hand. The interior minister seems at ease in this world.

When he arrives in front of the convention building, the firefighters stand at attention for him, there is marching music and he inspects the rows of firefighters like a commander in chief. He looks a little like someone practicing for a future role.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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