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Poisoned chalice: Socialist Valls backs independent centrist Macron

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | French then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls (L) and then-Economy and Industry minister Emmanuel Macron during a press conference in Paris on February 8, 2016.

In this powder-keg presidential race, a new spark set France’s political class alight Wednesday as former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls shirked party allegiances to back the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

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But Valls’ support may be somewhat of a poisoned chalice for the neophyte frontrunner.

Valls’ endorsement, ostensibly to the detriment of Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon, spurred breathless reactions from politicians of all stripes, indicating that that the former's support will not necessarily benefit Macron.

Socialists blasted Valls’ betrayal -- expressing their “shame”, even “nausea” on Twitter -- while conservatives were giddy to tar Macron with Valls’s governing record under the chronically unpopular Socialist President François Hollande.

Conservative François Fillon, who suffered yet another blow on Tuesday night when his wife was placed under formal investigation in the scandal that has crippled his presidential bid, seemed buoyed by the news. “With Valls’ endorsement, it is now clear that the Hollande government is going into extra time. Need a change in power!” he tweeted. The conservative told reporters, “Hollande’s whole team is surrounding Macron. It’s what I’ve always said, Emmanuel Macron is François Hollande.”

For his part, Macron quickly thanked Valls, but took the opportunity to remind French radio listeners that he would be “the guarantor of the renewal of faces, the renewal of practices” and said Valls would not be a part of the government should Macron win the presidency in May.

Awkward

Macron has espoused an everybody-is-welcome ethic, garnering a collection of endorsements from luminaries on the right, left, and centre. But some, like Valls, evidently rub up awkwardly against his pledge for fresh faces and ideas. On Tuesday, with Valls’ long-rumoured endorsement only hours away, the 39-year-old former banker told reporters, “We need to do away with this political class, which is all too often made up of men over 50 who never had a proper job” (Valls, as it happens, is 54 and began his career as a parliamentary attaché in 1983).

Macron served as an advisor in the Elysée Palace under Hollande and then as economy minister before creating his own centrist “movement”, quitting the government and mounting his independent bid for the presidency, refusing to take part in January’s left-wing primary.

Once favoured to win the Socialist nomination himself, the centre-leftist Valls stepped down as prime minister in December to run in the Socialist primary after the unpopular Hollande declined to seek re-election. But the longshot Hamon, initially touted to finish third, won the nomination running on a hardline leftist platform that touted a plan for a basic universal income. Valls had called Hamon’s platform “a 500-billion-euro presidential term. No one finds that credible. No one can imagine for a single instant that you can get elected on a platform like that.”

In the end, Hamon thrashed Valls in the primary’s final vote, 59 percent to 41 percent, to win the Socialist nomination. Meanwhile Valls and the other primary hopefuls bowed to the contest’s cardinal rule, signing a pledge to “publicly support the candidate designated as a result”.

Flash forward to March 29, with the first round 3.5 weeks away. Hamon is now running fifth ahead of April 23’s first-round vote, while Macron is polling neck-and-neck for the lead with National Front spitfire Marine Le Pen. In what polls indicate is the likeliest dual matchup, Macron is projected to handily beat Le Pen in the May 7 run-off.

National Front 'risk'

Valls explained on French television that he would vote for Macron over Hamon, “because I don't think we can take any risks with the Republic.” He told BFM TV: “There is a risk – and that is first and foremost what is pushing me to act – of a National Front victory. I am convinced, unfortunately, that the National Front's [numbers] are much higher than the polls are telling us.”

But Le Pen herself, as much as any Macron rival, seemed pleased by Valls’s move. She and Macron have ridden to the top of the polls on a wave of so-called "dégagisme", an out-with-the-old, throw-the-bums-out animosity towards establishment politics-as-usual. As a politician whose family business is built on railing against the system -- in the tradition of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen -- the anti-establishment mantle is evidently one she wants to claim for herself.

Le Pen published a blog post shortly after Valls’s announcement on Wednesday morning deeming his vote evidence of Macron’s faux anti-establishment credentials. She said it “confirms that Emmanuel Macron has become a mere cog in the grand plan to rescue Hollande-land. His candidacy is manifestly under the tutelage of the outgoing government, under the tutelage of a system that wants to find new jobs for itself at all cost.” Le Pen added, “We knew that Macron’s bid was empty; now we know that it is nothing but a veneer for the system.”

Conservative Les Républicains senator Bruno Rétailleau, a right-hand man to Fillon, scoffed that Macron’s En Marche! movement was “a machine to recycle socialism and permit all those who have governed with Hollande to stay in power”. He said Valls’ vote demonstrated that Macron is following in the footsteps of “his spiritual father, François Hollande. With the Valls-Macron pairing, change can wait for later”.

'Ashamed'

Meanwhile, some Socialists were merciless. Patrick Menucci, a Socialist parliamentarian, tweeted, “We are ashamed of you @manuelvalls”.

Arnaud Montebourg, a Hamon ally who finished third after Valls in January’s left-wing primary, tweeted, “Everyone now knows what signing an honour-bound pledge means to a man like Manuel Valls: Nothing. Which is what a man without honour is worth.”

Asked on BFM TV whether he worried about being expelled from the party for breaking the primary’s cardinal rule, Valls betrayed old animosities of his own. “Me? I would be excluded by people who respected no rules for five years?” In fact, while Valls was prime minister, Hamon served briefly in the cabinet before being sacked, along with Montebourg, for backing stances outside the government’s line. Hamon thus earned the ignominious distinction of having served as education minister without experiencing a single back-to-school period, having lost his job on August 25, 2014. He would become a key figure in a movement of dissident Socialist Party “frondeurs” – or insubordinates – vocally criticising the Socialist government.

“It is pretty funny in the end to receive lessons on treachery from people who wanted to hold non-confidence votes against their own government,” Valls said. “It isn’t my responsibility if nowadays Hamon has only 10 percent of the vote in opinion polls. Who made the choice not to stake a centrist position after the primary, not to bring together the progressive left? Who in the last debate… lashed out first and foremost at Macron on money matters rather than at Le Pen or Fillon?”

Hamon, indeed, has done Macron no favours. But it isn’t certain Valls will, either.

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