Portrait of an Enfant Terrible

On the status of women, we cannot compromise. Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, bears her breast because she nourishes the people; she is not veiled because she is free! That’s the Republic! That’s Marianne!” Manuel Valls, political gunslinger, who announced his candidacy for the French presidency yesterday and resigned as prime minister today, is refreshingly scandalous in his selection of socialist taboos for target-practice.

Amongst French socialists, battered and balkanized by interminable feuding and vendetta, the question remains whether he belongs to the Left at all. Ten episodes, any one of which would make him stand far out from the customary users of doublespeak….

Manuel Valls, or iconoclasm fashioned into a political weapon

First published in French 6th December 2017, in Le Figaro

Long considered a loose cannon of the Parti socialiste, the representative for Evry is well known for his taboo-breaking speeches; for using iconoclasm as a political weapon. Manuel Valls has taken only a few years to build his image as a social-democratic parliamentarian, forging a Left that is “pragmatic, reformist, and republican” — as he declared in an interview with l’Obs in October 2014. He has no use for the word socialist

Ten bombshells that have punctuated the political career of the Socialist Party’s enfant terrible.

“Can’t we find some more whites…?”

The general public heard it on the 7th June, 2009, after a report on Direct 8. The then mayor of Evry, visiting a market in his town, forgets his microphone and is heard to sigh: “Nice picture of Evry….”, then asks an aide to find some more “whites” [quelques blancs, quelque white, quelques blancos]. The video made the rounds of the web. The polemic blew up, including within the Parti socialiste, where numerous officials denounced “a scandalous gaffe”. Valls defended his words as proof of his desire for “social diversity”. In his eyes, “what had killed a part of the Republic was ghettoization; social, territorial, and ethnic segregation”. The core ideology of Manuel Valls is already there.

The Parti socialiste… that outmoded title

Valls had always demanded it, no matter whom in the Party it alienated, beginning with Martine Aubry. One week after the defeat of the socialists in the European elections of June 2009, Valls made a splash in an interview with Sud Ouest, explaining that the name of the Socialist Party was “outmoded”. We have to transform the operation of the Parti socialiste from top to bottom, to go beyond it, to change everything: [including] the name, because the word ‘socialism’ is clearly passé. It evokes a 19th century mind-set”. To the word ‘party’, which, he explains, “expresses something too narrow”, Valls prefers the title ‘movement’. This idea is not new. He had already developed it a year earlier in his book, Out with the old socialism… In with the Left [Pour en finir avec le vieux socialisme… et enfin être de gauche]. In 2008, he wrote: “Socialism was a wonderful idea, a glowing utopia. But it was a utopia invented in opposition to 19th century capitalism!”

Overhaul the alliances

For the regional elections of 2009, Valls explained that the Parti socialiste should have engaged with the MoDem [Mouvement Démocrate] led by François Bayrou. An end to alliances with the hard Left: we must rebuild the whole logic of our alliances. Enough to make the Socialist Party bosses scream. Valls benefits from taking a more social-democratic line at a time when the Socialist Party has no absolute majority [in the National Assembly], and refines his strategy: to be at the centre of the game, and above all to be at the centre of his political family. In 2014, he again denounced “the sectarianism” of his socialist comrades, who in his eyes had made the mistake of not reaching out to François Bayrou”, because of “some claimed purity”.

Unlock the 35-hour week

In January 2011, as candidate for the primary, Valls defended a programme at the antipodes of that of his socialist comrades… beginning with an explanation of why it was necessary to “unlock the 35-hour week”. And adding parenthetically that the reform implemented by Martine Aubry was “outdated”. An opportunity, nevertheless, to make himself heard beyond the militants of the Socialist Party. Three years later, Valls, by then prime minister, was on the same track when he declared at the summer university of Medef [Employers’ Federation], “I love business”, for which he received a standing ovation.

Abolition of the ISF [assets tax, Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune]

Still in the middle of the [2011] socialist primary, Valls attacked the assets tax, but not as the Socialist Party would have imagined. In the book, The Energy of Change, in which he outlines his strategy, he proposes — “ignoring taboo” — to “abolish the assets tax, useless because hardly profitable at only 0.15% of PIB [GDP], and above all a source of injustice between the salaried upper middle classes and the CEOs or self-employed”.

The Roma should be able to return to Rumania or Bulgaria

In September 2013, Valls unleashed a polemic way beyond the Socialist Party. Invited to France Inter’s morning programme, he explained that “the Roma should be able to return to Rumania or Bulgaria”, adding that “these populations have ways of life that are very different from ours”. His colleague at the Ministry of Housing, Cécile Duflot, denounced the suggestion and appealed to the president of the Republic. In her view, Valls “was endangering the pacte républicain“. In so expressing himself, Valls thought to relay the sentiments of local officials, many of whom had made known to him their feelings of impotence and even anger. On quite another subject, the interdiction of the burkini at the end of August 2016, Manuel Valls again chose to act as bullhorn for the officials, even if it meant going out on a limb with his political family.

“To explain is almost to excuse”

When France suffered a series of attacks, Manuel Valls broke with the traditional position of the Socialist Party. After the attacks of November 2015, the prime minister addressed the Senate: “I’ve had enough of those who are always looking for excuses or cultural and sociological explanations for what’s happened”. On the 9th of January 2016, while paying homage to the victims of the Kosher Supermarket, he reaffirmed this with even more force: “There cannot be any explanation worth the name. Because to explain jihadism”, he emphasized, “is already close to excusing it”. Outcry from the sociologists, who denied wanting to ‘excuse’, but rather to ‘understand’ it.

“No more refugees”

During his visit to Germany, in Munich, where Angela Merkel had opened wide the frontiers, Manuel Valls declared to the German press, 13th February 2016, that France could “not receive any more refugees”. Not only did Valls irritate the German chancellor, who little appreciated this call-to-order being given on her own territory, but the prime minister also took a swipe at socialists and refugee aid organizations… He asserted at the same time that “Europe should take back control of its borders and its policy on migration and asylum”. Valls played the firmness card to distance his profile from François Hollande’s.

“The irreconcilably fractured Left”

In the middle of a public meeting with his supporters at Corbeil-Essonnes, on 15th February last, Manuel Valls risked a phrase that could come back to bite him in the coming presidential campaign. “Sometimes there are irreconcilable positions on the Left, and we have to admit this”. He had said it before, in 2008: between the “outdated” Left that “lacked imagination”, and the Left he wanted to represent, there was a ditch.

Marianne does not wear the veil

In full flight during a Socialist Party meeting in the Haute-Garonne, at the end of August 2016, Manuel Valls departed from his prepared speech and let loose this declaration: “On the status of women, we cannot compromise. Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, bears her breast because she nourishes the people; she is not veiled because she is free! That’s the Republic! That’s Marianne!” Words that made the Left flinch, but which allowed him to advance his concept of an “islamist totalitarianism” that had to be “fought and destroyed”. Manuel Valls invested in the theme of the Republic, convinced that it would lie at the heart of the next presidential campaign. §