PARIS – As approval ratings plummet for the rest of France’s Socialist government, one politician has managed to defy the trend and become a rising star: tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls.
Thanks to a law-and-order drive that has appealed to voters on both the left and the right, Valls has emerged as France’s most popular politician.
His rise has hardly been without controversy. Valls has publicly feuded with fellow ministers and been denounced in some circles as a racist for remarks claiming Roma migrants will never integrate into French society.
But the 51-year-old’s outspoken views and dynamic presence have struck a chord with voters, and Valls is now being tipped as a serious future contender for the presidency.
Valls has consistently topped opinion polls as France’s favorite politician, with recent surveys giving him approval ratings of between 55 and 70 percent, far ahead of President Francois Hollande’s dismal numbers of around 25 percent.
A recent survey for Elle magazine even showed that 20 percent of French women would happily have a “torrid affair” with the twice-married Valls.
Not one to miss a beat, his current wife, glamorous violinist Anne Gravoin, told Spanish newspaper ABC she was “delighted” with the poll.
Valls’ rise has drawn comparisons with another young, dynamic interior minister who went on to become president: Nicolas Sarkozy.
Like Sarkozy, from the start Valls did not fit the mold of the typical French politician.
The Barcelona-born son of a Catalan artist, Valls only obtained French nationality at the age of 20 and did not attend the elite ENA university, which produces much of the political elite.
He joined the Socialist Party to support Michel Rocard, who later as prime minister pushed the Socialists to adopt more business-friendly policies.
Valls made a name for himself as one of the most vocal reformers in the party, at one point even suggesting the word “Socialist” be dropped from its name. He angered many in the party by attacking some of its sacred cows, including the 35-hour workweek.
After a series of parliamentary and party posts, Valls was elected mayor of the tough multicultural Paris suburb of Evry in 2001 and to the National Assembly a year later.
But he remained a party outsider, derided by many as a closet right-winger with a reputation for being aggressive and difficult to work with.
Undeterred, Valls ran in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary but scored a lowly 6 percent, eventually throwing his support behind Hollande and running the future president’s campaign communications.
When Hollande defeated Sarkozy last year, Valls was rewarded with the post of interior minister and has made waves with a series of provocative and media-savvy measures.
He continued the Sarkozy government’s contentious policy of dismantling camps belonging to Roma migrants from Eastern Europe despite an outcry from many on the left.
He has rushed to the southern port of Marseille several times after recent killings in the crime-ridden city, railing against drug dealers and vowing to boost police resources.
“Today he is even more popular on the right than he is on the left,” said Frederico Vacas, an analyst with Ipsos, noting that the firm’s latest poll gave Valls a 70 percent approval rating among supporters of the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement.