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Manuel Valls: How A 'Sarkozy Of The Left' Rose To Be French Prime Minister

Tough on crime and blatently ambitious, Valls was plucked by President Hollande to lead a new government after Sunday's disaster in local elections. It's a risky choice, for many reasons.

Manuel Valls, appointed French prime minister on April 1, 2014
Manuel Valls, appointed French prime minister on April 1, 2014
David Revault d'Allonnes

PARIS It was a bit less than five years ago, just after an electoral washout: Already Manuel Valls was there, ready to step forward before the others. On June 29, 2009, in a Parisian theater, the 46-year-old Socialist parliament member and mayor of Evry, a town in the suburbs of Paris, announced his candidacy to be president of the French Republic.

Valls was, and is, nothing if not straightforward. “It would not be a ridiculous idea that the mayor of Evry should succeed to the mayor of Neuilly,” he declared in front of a few dozen friends. It was a blunt reference to then President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had also been a mayor of a Parisian suburb, though from the political right.

At the time, the providential man’s stunt raised more than one eyebrow in the Rue de Solférino headquarters of the Socialist Party. And now that he has taken over at Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister, this new line on Manuel Vall’s résumé is not pleasing all of his fellow socialists.

Five years ago Valls was still unknown to the general public. He was a local baron in a party that has so many, an isolated electron at the national headquarters of the Socialist Party, where he has often been lambasted for taking positions against the tide.

It was also in 2009, where he was criticized by almost all his colleagues for having denounced “the obsessional anti-Sarkozysm” of the Socialist Party. The first secretary of the party of that time, Martine Aubry, even addressed him in a killer missive, in which she basically warned him that “you either love the party or you leave it.”

In those years, Valls flinched at nothing. He even suggested the party abandon the word “socialist,” which he considered “out of date.” He wanted to loosen the left’s hard-won 35-hour working week law, voted for the law against wearing burkas in public and called French legislation assigning sales tax revenue to social benefits a “left-wing law.”

“His policies do not follow the others,” says MP Jérôme Guedj, a figure of the left-wing faction of the Socialist Party.

Shaped by defeat

The 51-year-old has also been prone to public outbursts that distinguish him from his colleagues, but also in the eyes of the opinion. “Existing is a shield. It is a way to protect yourself,” says Valls.

But the strong communicator also had strong beliefs, including those shaped by the 2002 presidential election, when the Socialists finished behind the French far-right National Front party. The former spokesman of then-prime minister and presidential candidate Lionel Jospin remained convinced that security and immigration issues were key to the party’s recovery.

Born in Spain to a Catalan father and a Swiss-Italian mother, Valls joined the Socialist Party in 1980, when he was 17 years old, and has never looked back, working closely with top leftist politicians, before emerging on the conservative wing of the party.

His experience as a mayor has shaped his approach to politics. “Being more in touch with society than with the party apparatus,” is how he’s described by Stéphane Fouks, an old friend and top executive at Havas Worldwide communications.

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Photo: Fondapol (via Flickr)

It was during the Socialist primary campaign of 2011 to choose who would face Sarkozy that Valls emerged in the spotlight. As always, he led his campaign from the right flank of the party. And, as always, it left him seriously isolated, except for his team from Evry and a few political friends.

The start of the campaign was improvised, and ended modestly with only 5.63% of the vote. The political payoff, however, was undeniable. After three televised debates, “people started noting the idea that I was in the political scene,” he says.

Eyes on prizes

He also knows how to maneuver, and hours after François Hollande had secured victory in the Socialist primary, he became his communications director. In a few weeks, Valls, who almost seemed a sort of bodyguard for the candidate, really took over the campaign.

The prize for his support was entrance at the Place Beauvau, the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. Now that he was part of the state machine, Valls could maximize his well-tried method of media ubiquity. Natural disaster or seizure of narcotics, riots in the banlieues or sweeps among the Roma community, and most recently enforcing a ban of shows of an anti-Semitic comedian, Manuel Valls is everywhere. All the time. Perpetual motion, in front of the hungry cameras of the 24-hour news channels.

For a long time, the comparison to Nicolas Sarkozy exasperated Valls. These last few months, he accepted it much more willingly, his team even claiming to have traveled the country nearly 300 times, more than Sarkozy when he was Minister of the Interior. Call it the “bulldozer technique.” After a few months at the Place Beauvau, Valls, who had at 30% approval rating at the end of the Socialist primary in October 2011, was now at 60%, doubling his rating in just a year.

The former outcast in his own party was now the most popular political figure in France. The strong man of a weak government, Valls progressively abandoned the constraints of his first few months and let his ambition soar. He had never really toed the line set by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, but now, he started saying it.

In June 2013, he explained to the French local newspaper La Provence: “If, tomorrow, I am offered other responsibilities, I will, of course, take them on.” A month later, after branding a bull in a Camargue farm in southern France, he allowed himself a bold outline of his policies the day before the annual presidential speech of July 14. Valls is afraid of nothing.

“There’s definitely this idea of occupying space, of imposing oneself as ‘bankable’,” says one of his confidantes.

His expansionism has of course also earned him serious enemies, including those who will be ministers in the government he will lead. Until now, Manuel Valls was only a potential solution, now he is the prime minister.

“He is divisive with the left, and that may now be a problem,” says one government minister.

But, Hollande, weaker than ever, can no longer do without him. The Left's disaster in this past weekend's municipal elections accelerated his decision. Left in Valls' wake is a burnt out Jean-Marc Ayrault, as well as a handful of other party rivals.

Someone who knows the new prime minister well puts it this way: “If there is some free space, Valls will go and occupy it. He takes anything he can. If no one stops him, he keeps on going.”

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