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Former French PM Valls veers left as Socialist primary kicks off

© Alain Jocard, AFP | Former French prime minister Manuel Valls unveils his political programme in Paris on January 3, 2016

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Romain BRUNET , Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2017-01-22

Former prime minister Manuel Valls has made culture and education two pillars of his campaign at the start of France’s left-wing presidential primary, a U-turn for a Socialist politician better known for his “top cop” image.

When Valls announced in December his intention to ditch the French constitution's controversial Article 49.3, eyebrows were raised.

Article 49.3 is frequently denounced as undemocratic because it allows governments to force through unpopular legislation without a parliamentary debate or vote. It’s no surprise that someone would call it into question. The surprise was that it was Valls – who used the measure six times in less than three years as premier – who was crying foul.

The announcement – made just as Valls stepped down as prime minister to launch his presidential bid – now appears to have been a prelude to his larger primary campaign strategy, namely rebrand himself as a stalwart left-winger who will protect France’s progressive values.

The man who served as President François Hollande’s tough-talking interior minister between 2012 and 2014, before taking over as PM until last month, unveiled his political platform on Tuesday.

Instead of reviving ideas about scrapping France’s 35-hour work week and the special “ISF” tax that only the richest 0.01 percent of the population pay, Valls launched an attack on conservative presidential nominee François Fillon. Valls described Fillon’s belt-tightening measures and plans to bid adieu to the 35-hour work week and the ISF as a “vast purge”, warning that his rival wants to dismantle France.

Valls presented himself as a supporter of the arts and French culture, describing them as the country’s most intrinsic attributes.

“I want to support everything that makes our country more powerful, stronger, and fraternal, everything that helps people feel like they are part of a shared adventure,” he told supporters as he revealed his political programme. “That means constantly favouring cultural policies: cinema, theatre, music, dance, visual arts, digital arts, street art, works destined for young audiences. Culture is above all a spirit of openness and coming together, of facing the unknown, to know oneself, to understand others.”

He also heaped praise on artists themselves as the “watchful observers of our society’s errors”, adding that: “Culture is what gives us strength, optimism, depth, and therefore, a vision for our country.”

Betting on culture

They were unfamiliar words in the mouth of a politician described as a “Socialist Sarkozy” by the Economist in 2012 and who infuriated the leftist branch of his own ruling party over the past five years by giving tax breaks to corporations and curtailing civil liberties.

But to his credit, Valls – whose father was a painter and mother a violinist – has a strong record when it comes to supporting the arts. As premier he increased the Culture Ministry’s budget, which was cut back during his predecessor Jean-Marc Ayrault’s tenure. In 2014, he defused a growing crisis with disgruntled performance artists and crew members, disbursing 40 million euros to save summer theatre and music festivals that year. In 2016 he maintained generous subsidies from the state, which allow artists to receive a monthly income while they are creating new shows or on hiatus.

It is nevertheless easy to question the sincerity of Valls’s new devotion to the arts with the Socialist Party’s presidential primary fast approaching. The first round of the open poll will be held on January 22, with a run-off between the two top candidates a week later. Cultural patronage in France, as elsewhere, has traditionally been more closely associated with the left. As Valls himself pointed out on Tuesday: “The issue was completely overlooked by the conservative [presidential] primary" in late 2016. But surprisingly, candidates in the left-wing primary have also largely neglected the issue, leaving Valls an open lane to run in.

Another issue near and dear to France’s left-wing voters is education, and here Valls also appears to be doubling down. Among his campaign pledges are expanding public early childhood education programmes, raising teachers’ salaries and investing 1 billion euros per year in French universities.

“In the next five years, France, after all that has been accomplished, should redouble its efforts to become one of the world’s education leaders, perhaps even the number one country,” he said on Tuesday. “We must invest in our education, fight even harder against educational inequality and especially against the social stagnation that is crippling part of our society.”

Reconciling opposite images

It remains to be seen if Valls’s hard-left turn will work. He is frontrunner in the Socialist primary, according to opinion polls, and it is unlikely rivals Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon – who are widely considered to be further to the left than Valls – will let him off the hook for his inconsistencies.

Although he increased the Culture Ministry’s budget and moved to appease artists, his legacy as interior and prime minister remains marked by a labour reform unpopular with unions, increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters, the dismantling of Roma and refugee camps, and brandishing the infamous Article 49.3 whenever political winds didn’t appear to be blowing in his favour.

Montebourg and Hamon will undoubtedly be tempted to remind voters that Valls once suggested the word “Socialist” be dropped from their party’s name.

Valls’s ability to convince left-wing voters he shares their values will be critical to pulling off a victory in the primaries. His campaign director, Didier Guillaume, believes the main task lies in showing that market-friendly and tough-on-crime positions are not incompatible with a desire to advance the arts and education.

“I was required to focus on certain issues in the past because of the positions I served in, but now it’s as if I have been liberated,” Valls said Tuesday, as if anticipating the looming criticism. “When one makes education a priority, it shows one stands firmly on the left. When one makes culture a priority, it shows one stands firmly on the left. When one helps businesses, so they can return to profits and create jobs, one also stands firmly on the left.”

Date created : 2017-01-04

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