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Tough-talking minister is France's new favourite politician

21st October 2013, Comments 0 comments

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.

Valls came under fire again on Wednesday, following the deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family to Kosovo, reportedly after she was taken off a bus in the middle of a school trip.

Accusing police of humiliating the girl and violating her rights, critics rounded on Valls, with some demanding his resignation.

But the 51-year-old's outspoken views and dynamic presence have struck a chord with voters and Valls is being tipped as a serious future contender for the presidency.

"He says things with a certain honesty, a certain clearness and yes, sometimes a certain roughness," said Alain Bauer, a prominent French criminologist and friend of Valls since their student days.

"He has vitality, dynamism, energy -- and that rallies people around him."

Valls has consistently topped opinion polls as France's favourite 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.

"Manuel absolutely deserves it -- and a lot more besides," she said. "He's a very loveable man."

From the start Valls did not fit the mould 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 that produces much of the French political elite.

-- Provocative and media-savvy --

After joining the Socialist Party as a student, 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 work week.

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 difficult to work with.

Undeterred, Valls ran in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary but scored a lowly six percent, eventually throwing his support behind Hollande and running the future president's campaign communications.

When Hollande took office last year, Valls was rewarded with the interior minister post 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 publicly feuded with Justice Minister Christiane Taubira over penal reforms, insisting that tough sentences were needed instead of plans to end mandatory minimums and to offer more alternatives to prison terms.

And -- in a move that has triggered the biggest outcry so far -- Valls said in September that the majority of Roma migrants living in France should be "delivered back to the borders" because they cannot assimilate.

He has refused to back away from the statement, despite accusations he is occupying ground usually reserved for the far-right National Front, and his support on the right has skyrocketed since.

"Today he is even more popular on the right than he is on the left," said Federico 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 UMP.

That has stirred much talk of Valls emerging as the potential key to keeping the Socialists in office in the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017.

Hollande is scoring the lowest approval ratings of any leader in modern French history and the Socialists may need to turn to someone with broader appeal.

Experts say few in the Socialist Party would welcome Valls, but if it means staying in power they would be willing to hold their noses and back him.

"His support is very low in the party. Following his anti-Roma statements a lot of Socialists are very angry with him," said Philippe Marliere, a professor of French politics at University College London.

"But if this man, who seems to be the man of the moment, is ready to step in and be a last-ditch solution for the Socialists, you'll see everyone rally behind him.

"He's not very popular in the party, but this is politics."

Michael Mainville / AFP / Expatica

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