Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls. Photo: Jackolan1 for Wikimedia Commons
New Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Photo: Jackolan1 for Wikimedia Commons

France’s new prime minister, Manuel Valls, was appointed to his position last month by President François Hollande, as one of many attempts to revive that man’s flagging popularity, along with that of his Parti Socialiste (PS).  A month into his tenure, things seem to be going well for a man whose leftist credentials are considered anything but pristine to his party’s most orthodox supporters, and who has, at the very least, stalled his party’s precipitous decline in public opinion. 

Formerly France’s interior minister, Valls has never been the archetypal PS politician – there are rumors he once lobbied the party to remove the word socialist from its name. An émigré from Spain who became a French citizen at the age of 20, he practically invited scorn last fall by saying that “the Roma should eventually return to Romania and Bulgaria,” at the height of a public controversy over the fate of those people in France. But Valls also plays up his own status as a outsider to the French political system — traditionally dominated by officials who attended France’s most elite universities — by highlighting his studies at a public university in Paris.

The figure he attempts to cut is one of an independent, not afraid to take a principled stand to maintain (or restore, depending on who you’re asking) the Gallic grandeur of the de Gaulle years. One of his first public acts was to ask the French people to accept cuts in public benefits to reduce the deficit. (The request was met with boos from his audience.) His government plans to trim $69 billion from the federal budget by 2017, with $13.8 billion in cuts to the national heath care system, $26 billion to central government bureaucracy, $13.8 billion to local governments, and $15.4 billion more from unspecified sources.

Keenly aware of the potential for some of his stances to be seen a veritable treason by those on the left and rob him of the wing of the party’s support, Valls has engaged in a bit of wordplay to try and stem the bleeding. He re-termed a deal to help businesses create jobs by cutting employment costs that President Hollande had dubbed the “responsibility pact,” the “responsibility and solidarity pact,” in an effort to show that the move was meant to shore up employees’ fortunes, rather than only their employers. Will this paradigm shuffling be enough to pacify socialist stalwarts? Only time will tell.
 
Either way, the PS seems to be relying on Valls to stem their ebbing electoral fortunes in this month’s European parliamentary elections. The far right FN party, run by the acerbic reactionary Marine Le Pen  is polling within striking distance of the center-right UMP party, with the Socialists well behind both. The high emotional tenor of the pending elections have much to do with the perceived fight for the soul of France’s identity, with Le Pen’s party claiming that too much integration with the European Union has eroded France’s unique character. Valls is striking back with identity politics of his own. “I love Europe and I love France, the two are indissoluble,” he has said. “There are our countries and there is Europe, these are our two identities. The two complement each other.”
 
For now, a recent BVA poll published in Le Parisien shows that 64% of the French think that Valls is doing a a good job as prime minister. “France is at a moment in its history when we must concentrate on the essential, and the essential is giving confidence back to the French in their future,” Valls said in his first speech to the National Assembly. As for Valls’ own future, it’s no secret that he harbors presidential aspirations — he ran in the 2011 Socialist primaries, losing out to now-President Hollande. If he can make the PS seem as quintessentially French again as it once did, he might just have a chance at a more successful second shot.
Elizabeth Nicholas is a freelance writer and reporter. She was previously the Managing Editor of the Aspen Institute’s magazine and an editorial assistant at Vanity Fair. Follow her on twitter @eliznicholas. The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.