LES ECHOS

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 He even suggested the party abandon the word “socialist,” which he considered “out of date.”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.

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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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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