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Manuel Valls: France's tough-talking new PM

AFP/The Local · 31 Mar 2014, 20:30

Published: 31 Mar 2014 20:30 GMT+02:00

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He has feuded with fellow ministers and is regularly brushed with controversy, but France's new Prime Minister Manuel Valls is one of the country's most popular politicians.

As approval ratings plummeted for the rest of France's Socialist government over the course of its first two years in office, the good-looking interior minister was almost alone in defying the trend.

A natural in front of the television cameras, the Barcelona-born 51-year-old has won respect from voters across the political spectrum with a tough-talking style, particularly on the issues of crime and insecurity.

His style and his politics have drawn comparisons with former British premier Tony Blair - which is far from being a compliment for many in the Socialist Party, in which Valls sometimes appears to be something of a misfit.

Political expert  Nonna Mayer, from Sciences Po university in Paris told The Local that Valls was perhaps not the obvious choice given he has enemies within his own party.

"Manuel Valls is a divisive choice. He is considered on the right of the Socialist party," she said. "The ecologists already said they would leave such a government because he has a bad reputation. He is the one who wanted to take away the word ‘socialist’ from the party because he believes it’s an obsolete word. For the left of the left he is not liked.

"But I suppose François Hollande wants to send a message and wants somebody with a high-energy personality. Valls won’t, however, be able to change the policies, so it’s not enough to just change your prime minister. It’s not an easy situation for François Hollande after such a defeat.

"Choosing Valls can help Hollande if he manages to show he’s understood the discontent of his voters. Some of the left-wing voters didn’t quite understand ‘Pact of Responsibility’ program and they were not happy with the tax policies. So it’s not an easy situation. What is Hollande going to propose in new policies to show he cares about social justice and finding more solidarity for the French amidst this long-lasting recession?"

Valls came under heavy fire last October following the deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family to Kosovo, after she was taken off a bus in the middle of a school trip.

Accusing police of humiliating the girl and violating her rights, critics rounded on Valls, with some demanding his resignation.

But polls showed that the overwhelming majority of voters backed Valls in that row and he retained the confidence of Hollande, with whom he is personally close.

An abrasive character

Friends acknowledge the abrasiveness, but also highlight a warmer and charismatic side to his personality.

"He says things with a certain honesty, a certain clearness, and yes, sometimes a certain roughness," Alain Bauer, a prominent French criminologist and friend of Valls since their student days, told AFP.

"He has vitality, dynamism, energy -- and that rallies people around him."

Valls has consistently topped opinion polls as France's favourite politician, although the approval ratings of up to 70 percent he enjoyed last year have slipped recently as a result of the tough stance he took in trying to ban anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala.

That hit his standing with Dieudonne supporters and France's influential free-speech campaigners, but he remains much admired by most voters, including some women impressed by his intense Iberian looks and sharp-fitting suits.

A survey for Elle magazine last year revealed one in five French ladies liked the idea of a "torrid affair" with the twice-married minister - a finding that delighted his glamorous second wife, the professional violinist Anne Gravoin.

"Manuel absolutely deserves it - and a lot more besides," she said at the time. "He's a very loveable man."

Although he does not encourage the comparison, Valls shares some of Blair's political instincts, frequently defining himself in opposition to dearly held positions of his own party.

Neither does the father of four fit the mould of the typical French politician in terms of background and education.

The son of a Catalan artist who left Spain during the dictatorship of General Franco, Valls only obtained French nationality at the age of 20. He did not attend the elite ENA university that produced Hollande and many other members of the French political elite.

After joining the Socialist Party as a student, Valls made a name for himself as one of the most vocal reformers in the party, at one point even suggesting the word "Socialist" be dropped from its name.

He angered many in the party by attacking some of its sacred cows, including the 35-hour work week.

On economic policy, his thinking is influenced by the pro-business, flexible approach of the most recent generation of Scandinavian Social Democrats -- a world away from the radical neo-Keynesianism of the left of the Socialist Party.

After a series of parliamentary and party posts, Valls was elected mayor of the tough multicultural Paris suburb of Evry in 2001 and to the National Assembly a year later.

He remained a party outsider, derided by many as a closet right-winger with a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Story continues below…

Undeterred, Valls ran in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary but scored a lowly six percent, eventually throwing his support behind Hollande and running the future president's campaign communications.

When Hollande took office last year, Valls was rewarded with the interior minister's post. He immediately made waves by continuing the previous government's contentious policy of dismantling camps belonging to Roma migrants from eastern Europe.

He clashed with Justice Minister Christiane Taubira over penal reforms he regards as soft on crime and triggered an outcry by saying Roma migrants living rough should be "delivered back to the borders" because they would never assimilate.

Even some of his cabinet colleagues suggested that comment was racist, but, bolstered by surging poll ratings, Valls refused to apologise and Hollande stood by him. Perhaps the president knew he would one day have need of him.

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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