France prefers a strange class of socialist

Popular interior minister Manuel Valls is somewhere to the right of Sarkozy

French interior minister Manuel Valls. Photograph: Reuters

French interior minister Manuel Valls. Photograph: Reuters


Like Nicolas Sarkozy a decade ago, the French interior minister Manuel Valls is a media creature. He’s dominated headlines all summer, making a speech in the Camargue surrounded by white horses and bulls. He visited the town of Trappes in the aftermath of rioting sparked by the police identity check of a fully-veiled woman. He and his second wife, the concert violinist Anne Gravoin, were shown kissing in a two-page spread in Paris Match.

The “socialist Sarkozy” made headlines again this week, when someone – Valls himself? – leaked a private letter Valls sent to President François Hollande outlining misgivings over a draft law on prison reform drawn up by the justice minister Christiane Taubira.

The leak precipitated an open confrontation. Taubira called statistics provided by Valls “erroneous and tendentious”. Valls failed to mention the letter he’d sent to Hollande in at least two subsequent conversations. “I can only be surprised that such a document was not shared with me,” she complained.

Valls and Taubira first clashed a year ago, when the interior minister shut down camps inhabited by Roma in the town of Évry, where he was mayor for 11 years, Paris, Lyon and Lille. The actions were denounced by human rights groups and clearly displeased the justice minister. Valls persisted, saying last January that “The vocation of the Roma is to stay in Romania or to return there.”

Harsh penal system
Taubira is attempting to unravel the harsh penal system established under Sarkozy’s presidency, but Valls won’t let her. He had challenged or opposed “nearly every measure in this text” Valls wrote to Hollande.

Taubira believes French prisons impede rehabilitation and wants to abolish mandatory sentencing. Valls wants to build more prisons. Earlier this month, he harshly criticised a court in Chartres that refused to incarcerate three convicts because the prison was full.

Valls interrupted his holiday in Provence on Wednesday to visit a north Marseille housing project where a youth died after being stabbed in the throat. He renewed his vow to “eradicate drug trafficking” and tried to calm the dispute with Taubira, promising the two ministers would “continue to work hand in hand”.

Taubira is likely to drop the feud with Valls for one simple reason: he is the most popular politician in France. A poll last month indicated 69 per cent of French people have a positive opinion of him, compared to 40 per cent for Hollande in the same poll. He has a weak following within the socialist party apparatus, but his right-wing appeal will be an asset in next year’s European and municipal elections.

Valls’s obsession with secularism, security and “Republican order” is so marked that some question whether he’s really a socialist at all. He has described himself as “Blairist” and “Clintonian”.

No ordinary socialist
During the 2011 socialist primary, in which he won 5.7 per cent of the vote, Valls proposed ending the 35-hour working week, increasing VAT to ease social charges paid by employers and raising the retirement age. Back in 2009, when he tried to drop the word “socialist,” then first secretary Martine Aubry publicly asked if he’d like to leave the party.

Like Sarkozy, Valls is of immigrant stock but a hardliner on immigration. He was born in Barcelona 51 years ago this week, to a Catalan painter father and a Swiss Italian mother. He joined the socialist party at the age of 17, three years before he was naturalised as a French citizen.

And he is more experienced than most of Hollande’s cabinet members, having served 10 years in the national assembly and five years as spokesman for the Jospin government, later handling communications for Hollande’s presidential campaign.

Like Sarkozy before him, Valls makes no secret of his goal. “I’m a politician; I’m ambitious,” he told La Provence newspaper in June. “I always thought I had the capacity to assume the highest responsibilities in my country.”

A long wait
Valls will have to bide his time though. Hollande expects to be the socialist presidential candidate in 2017. Valls might make prime minister in a cabinet reshuffle or second Hollande administration, but 2022 is a long way away.

Unlike Sarkozy, who sniped constantly at Jacques Chirac, Valls is teacher’s pet. His speech in the Camargue – on the eve of Hollande’s televised Bastille Day interview – went far beyond the boundaries of his interior ministry portfolio. But in Hollande’s eyes, Valls can do no wrong. “I can only be pleased that Manuel Valls made a speech supporting government policy and defining my strategy,” the president said the next day.