Manuel Valls and the daunting challenge of uniting the left

 Manuel Valls

Manuel Valls

Manuel Valls, who will resign as French prime minister Tuesday to run for the left-wing presidential primary, is a self-styled law-and-order strongman.

Spanish-born Valls, 54, faces an uphill struggle to unite the divided French left. He is outspokenly pro-business and wants to modernise France’s Socialist Party, which he said he wanted to rename in 2007, believing the title “Socialist” was old-fashioned.

“The left could die,” he has warned, describing the emergence of two “irreconcilable” factions – one pragmatic and open to reforms, the other wedded to the socialist class struggle.

His use of decrees to push through contested and unpopular labour reforms during his two-and-a-half years as PM, and a failed proposal to strip dual-national terrorists of their French citizenship, have only served to widen divisions on the left.

Valls’ hard line on secularism and security issues – witnessed by his comments on the full body burkini swimwear being a “provocation” and calls for the Muslim headscarf to be banned in universities – have alienated many in the party, while making him popular with many right-wing voters.

He is also outspoken in his criticism of another Socialist sacred cow, the 35-hour workweek, which has earned him the backing of centrists, but the animosity of those who are further to the left.

“A boss must know how to be the boss. I’m the boss,” he said in 2014 when Hollande promoted him to prime minister.

To triumph in January’s primary, he will need to bridge serious divisions within his own camp and overcome scepticism among the public about his time working for unpopular President François Hollande, whose poll ratings have sunk to as low as 4 percent.

Even if he wins the primary, he remains an outsider for the 2017 presidential election, given the expectation (in the polls and because of the divided left) that the election will be a second-round duel between far-right leader Marine Le Pen and mainstream conservative candidate François Fillon.

Barcelona fan

For a senior French politician, Valls has an unusual background. His family fled Franco’s dictatorship in Spain for France when he was a teenager.

He only gained French citizenship at the age of 20. If elected president, he would be the first French leader who was not born French.

Unlike Hollande and many other members of the French political elite, the lifelong Barcelona football fan did not attend the prestigious ENA school of administration, opting to study history instead.

He has four children from his first marriage to a teacher. In 2010, he married Anne Gravoin, a concert violinist.

‘Social and ethnic apartheid’

He began his political career as a parliamentary researcher at the age of 23, before going on to work as an aide to former Socialist prime ministers Michel Rocard and Lionel Jospin.

In 2001, he became mayor of the gritty Paris suburb of Evry, and was elected to the National Assembly a year later.

His experience in high-immigrant Evry has shaped his views of France’s notoriously rough suburbs. He has spoken out about France’s failure to offer opportunities to immigrant families in grim high-rise homes outside major cities, deploring a “spatial, social and ethnic apartheid”.

Valls has nevertheless indicated he will defend Hollande’s legacy. “We must defend our record. We must defend this action and I will do that unfailingly,” he said.