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All eyes on Valls after Hollande bows out of French presidential race

© Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

Now that French President François Hollande has announced that he will not be seeking another term, all eyes are on his prime minister, Manuel Valls, ahead of the left wing’s January primary to choose a presidential candidate for 2017.

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If President Hollande was seen as mild-mannered and ultimately ineffectual, Valls projects an image of authority, which perhaps served him better in his “top cop” role as interior minister than it has during his past two years as prime minister, when he has been criticised for a lack of diplomacy – a skill he will need to hone if he is to unite a deeply divided left.

More than half a dozen candidates have already declared their candidacies for the late January primaries, and still more – including Valls – are expected to throw their hats into the ring. While he has not yet officially announced that he is running for his party’s nomination, he is widely expected to do so before the deadline for declaring on December 15.

A flash poll conducted by Harris Interactive on Thursday shortly after Hollande announced he wouldn’t seek a second term showed that Valls is the left’s preferred candidate from among the eight options offered to respondents, garnering 24 percent support (47 percent of those surveyed didn’t want any of the candidates offered).

Even if Valls emerges victorious from the primary, to prove a viable candidate in the presidential election he would have to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles – some of which are of his own making.

A right-wing Socialist

Valls is a self-declared Blairite “third-way” adherent who supports a mixture of right-wing economic policies and left-wing social policies. He has said that France now has two, irreconcilable lefts: the reformist left and the traditional Socialist revolutionary left. Valls has positioned himself at the far right of the party, a leader who is pro-business and pro-globalisation.

That has not gone down well with the more traditional Socialists. With his deeply unpopular labour law reforms – which he controversially pushed through parliament without a vote and which sparked months of often violent street protests – he has deeply alienated the party’s left flank.

“This is how he built his reputation, by attacking Socialist orthodoxy and smashing the totems and symbols of the left,” Nicholas Vinocur, Paris correspondent for Politico, told FRANCE 24.

He has estranged the left on social issues as well. As interior minister, his inflammatory statements concerning the Roma – such as when he defended the detention of a 15-year-old girl while she was on a school field trip so that she could be deported – have left him at odds with the more liberal factions of his party.

“He is amazingly right wing, even by very moderate Socialist standards today,” said Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London.

'Deeply exclusive'

And his approach to the near-sacred French concept of laïcité, or secularism, has inspired comparisons to politicians on the right and far right. Valls’s vocal support of the controversial burkini ban that more than a dozen towns passed this summer (which was later overturned by a French court) has been viewed as an insistence that adherents of all religions conform to the French lifestyle.

“His take on laïcité is deeply exclusive,” Marlière said. “In my opinion, he’s very similar to [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy or [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen.”

Unlikely to unite his party, Valls has the added disadvantage of being associated with the deeply unpopular government of Hollande, who has seen his approval ratings plunge into the low single digits.

“He will never, ever unify the left and, what’s more, he can’t even present himself as a new face, as someone not associated with this Socialist debacle,” Marlière said. “He is the prime minister of a government largely rejected by the public.”

As such, Valls will have a hard time distancing himself from Hollande’s policies.
“He wouldn’t go back on the things that the current government has done,” such as legalising gay marriage, said David Bell, professor of French government at the University of Leeds.

“The problem now is that Valls is tied to the record of the current government,” Bell said. “He’s part of that government. He’s obliged to defend it, and people want to turn the page.”

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