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France’s most popular minister Manuel Valls battles far right
By Hugh Carnegy in Paris
Manuel Valls, the French interior minister fast emerging as the leading figure in François Hollande’s struggling socialist government, has a striking warning about the rise of the far right Front National.
“They could be the leading political party in (next May’s) European elections,” he says. “The threat is not just in France. I fear there is a risk that the extreme right and populists will gain real weight in the European parliament.”
An opinion poll on Wednesday underscored Mr Valls’ warning, for the first time putting the FN ahead of the centre-right UMP main opposition group and the Socialist party in the running for the European vote. The FN trounced the left and easily defeated the UMP in a local by-election in the south of France last Sunday.
Nor does Mr Valls hide his worry that in the next presidential election in 2017, Marine Le Pen, charismatic leader of the FN, could repeat the 2002 feat of her father Jean-Marie, who knocked the socialists out of the second, decisive round.
“Everyone thinks you could have the FN in the second round at the expense of one of the two main parties. It would not be a surprise after 2002. It would be irresponsible to say otherwise,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times.
For President Hollande, however, there is a ray of light. The rising support for Ms Le Pen has been matched by a parallel surge in the popularity of the straight-talking Mr Valls.
The Spanish-born minister, with his tough stance on crime and immigration, has suddenly become the biggest asset the president possesses in his uphill battle against recession, unemployment and public disaffection with him and his government.
Mr Valls, 51, is currently France’s most popular political figure, ahead of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen. A BVA poll at the weekend gave him a 71 per cent approval rating: Mr Hollande languishes on around 25 per cent or less.
His youthful good looks help. His wife, concert violinist Anne Gravoin, recently told the Spanish newspaper ABC: “Lots of women want to sleep with him.”
But it is his muscular stance as interior minister that has propelled his popularity – even if his positions have unsettled many of his colleagues on the left.
This month he was implicitly criticised by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for saying the majority of Roma – itinerant immigrants from eastern Europe – did not want to integrate into French society. Mr Valls has vigorously pursued a policy of breaking up encampments and deporting Roma instigated by Mr Sarkozy.
But Mr Valls strongly defends his stance. “What people cannot stand is if you pretend there isn’t a problem with crime, with immigration, with the Roma, with the building of Europe,” says Mr Valls. “People think I state things clearly.”
● 1962: Born in Barcelona; moved with parents to France as a child; naturalised as French citizen in 1982
● Joined Socialist party 1980; head of communications for socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, 1997-2002
● Mayor of Evry, suburb south of Paris; member of National Assembly 2001-2012
● 2007: refused offer from Nicolas Sarkozy to join centre-right government
● 2011: fifth in Socialist party presidential primary, with 6 per cent of the vote
● 2011-2012: head of communications for François Hollande’s presidential campaign
● 2012-to date: interior minister
He is now being deployed by Mr Hollande to fight the FN. On Tuesday he visited Forbach, a hardscrabble town in Lorraine, close to the German border, where Florian Phillipot, Ms Le Pen’s top strategist, threatens to unseat the socialist mayor in local elections in March.
Mr Phillipot scoffed that the minister was an ineffectual “Sarkozy 2.0”. But Mr Valls, promising more police resources to tackle crime in Forbach, appeared to have some impact. Gilbert Huver, a local teacher, said: “His policies are good. He’s in tune with what the people think. I’ll stick with the socialists, despite the stupidities of Hollande.”
Mr Valls evokes the slogan coined by Tony Blair, former UK prime minister: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
He says his crackdown on crime and illegal immigration is matched by policies to deal with poverty and social divisions. “My stance is not populist,” he insists. Speaking on Tuesday to an audience of youngsters, many from immigrant backgrounds, he said: “I was born in Spain. I had to learn French. I was naturalised as French. My parents taught me to love France. This country needs optimism.”
Mr Valls has always stood out on the right of the Socialist party.
“I was never a revolutionary,” he tells the FT. “I was accused – the worst of insults – of being a social democrat. Even worse, of being of the ‘American left’. Me, I like the left of Clinton and Obama.”
Mr Valls’ aim to entrench the Socialists in presidential and parliamentary power for 10 years, as they have never achieved before, looks optimistic in the face of the government’s current difficulties. But with the UMP also in disarray, he clearly believes the opportunity is there – not withstanding the threat of the FN. He rejects criticism that the current government is not undertaking deep enough reforms to regenerate the economy.
“You will never have a Thatcher-like purge in France or Germany. Even the French right has never been liberal in the Thatcher or Reagan sense,” he says. “But François Hollande is implementing more reforms than have been achieved in previous years. They may be deeper than people think.”