France’s François Hollande is beset by rivals from inside his left-wing coalition. On the far left, former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg is mulling a presidential bid. On the right of the Socialist Party, Montebourg’s successor, Emmanuel Macron, just launched a “movement” that seems to serve no purpose other than to advance the former investment banker’s political ambitions.
But if Hollande is successfully challenged for the left’s presidential nomination, or decides not to run for reelection in 2017 at all, the man currently serving as his prime minister looks like the safer bet.
Montebourg represent an anti-globalist fringe that may have disproportionate influence in France but is still in the minority.
Macron is more electable, but his liberal, Blairite ways are an affront to many old-school socialists who cling to France’s heavily-regulated, state-centric social model.
Manuel Valls hardly sits in the middle. His views are closer to Macron’s than to Montebourg’s. But he has worked his way up through the party whereas the economy minister stormed in from outside and seems to believe that he can upend the left-right divide all by himself.
Valls is an incrementalist. That may be less exciting to magazine editors who like to put Macron on their covers; it also makes him the more probable leader of a party that spans the entire left-wing spectrum of French politics.
“Valls has more support in parliament and a deeper understanding of how power is accumulated from the ground up,” a supporter told Politico, “and not from the top down, as Macron is proposing to do.”
The prime minister’s displeasure with Macron’s ambitions has occasionally been hinted at in French media reports. The latter’s launch of En Marche! (Forward!), a movement nominally committed to uniting Frenchmen from the left and the right around a program of reform, put Valls over the edge.
Politico reports that it galvanized him to not only try to neutralize Macron, “but also to isolate himself from the awkward legacy of Hollande and start refurbishing his own, unique brand of Socialist Party politics.”
When Valls ran against Hollande in the 2012 left-wing primary, it was as a reformer who vowed to abolish the 35-hour workweek and crack down hard on the spread of Islamism in France.
Subsequently leading Hollande’s government — which caved to union pressure and withdrew far-reaching economic reforms — has put Valls in a bind. He cannot speak out against the man he now serves, but nor does he want to be saddled with Hollande’s legacy.
When Valls does put distance between himself and the president, it’s not on the economy, Hollande’s greatest weakness. It is rather on the even more divisive question of Islam in France.
Politico suggests that Valls is deliberately exacerbating fault lines within the Socialist Party by suggesting, for example, that full-face Islamic veils may need to be banned from secondary schools and public buildings.
Verboten for much of the left, which considers identity politics toxic and inherently right-wing, Valls has made it his special preserve to the outrage of many Socialists.
He told Libération that “culture and identity”, not the job market, will be the most important issue in the 2017 election.
Not a one-issue candidate
There may be something to his prediction. Although the loss of jobs, especially in the deindustrializing north, is tied in with people’s concerns about immigration and globalization, the question of French identify manifests itself in all the major political issues of the day, from what sort of an economy France wants to have to how it copes with Islamic terror, Muslim integration and the exodus of French Jews.
Macron has the answer to one of those questions. His France is an altogether more liberal place, with looser labor laws, fewer restrictions on enterprise and youngsters coming from all over to study, work and start businesses in the country. His favorite pastime is promoting France at Davos and Silicon Valley, places Socialist Party bigwigs rather avoid.
Meanwhile, Valls is governing a country in a state of emergency, in place since the November terrorist attacks in Paris. He previously served as interior minister, is seen as strong on law and order and has resisted European plans for France to take in more refugees.
In a presidential election that is likely to pit the Socialist candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Marine Le Pen on the far right — both hardliners on immigration and security policy — Macron would appear untested.
Valls, with his reformist credentials intact, would be a far more appealing candidate to the center and might stem some of the defections to the far left that a Macron candidacy would inevitably inspire — something that threatens to take the Socialists out of contention for the crucial second voting round.