It is not just the British who will see humour in a Manuel from Barcelona trying to revive France’s failing socialist government. Fawlty Towersremains popular across the Channel, where it is called L’Hôtel en folie, and there was more than one reference to its bumbling waiter when the Catalan-born Manuel Valls became the Fifth Republic’s 21st prime minister on Monday.
President François Hollande’s once determinedly leftwing party was slaughtered in local elections the day before, along with its anti big-business, high-tax agenda. A dramatic U-turn was necessary and Valls, 51, personifies it. Still perceived as an outsider – he did not obtain French nationality until he was 20 – he is not much of a socialist either. Valls wanted the term dropped from his party’s name altogether and he has opposed cornerstone policies such as the 35-hour working week.
Valls is no fool – he looks more like a pugnacious matador than Basil Fawlty’s comic sidekick – and what he principally represents is a move to the right by Hollande, who needs to regain working-class voters. Many supported the National Front (FN) at the elections, exasperated over a range of issues, from immigration to EU-enforced austerity.
As interior minister, Valls built his reputation in the same way as his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy: a no-nonsense “top cop”, clamping down on undesirables. Valls infuriated colleagues last year by saying the Roma were incapable of integrating and should be deported “to their own countries”. He continued Sarkozy’s razing of squatter camps. Also like Sarkozy, and Marine Le Pen’s FN, Valls is a staunch supporter of anti-Muslim measures such as the ban on women wearing veils and restrictions on the sale of halal meat.
I first met Valls in his constituency of Évry, the Paris suburb. There, in 2009, he was caught on camera walking through the multicultural town, saying: “Come on, give me a few whites, a few blancos…” Defending himself later, Valls insisted he was as much in favour of poor, black people living in prosperous quartiers as introducing whites to immigrant housing estates.
His appointment heralds cuts within France’s vast public service and more tolerance towards free-market capitalism. It is an admission of failure that will disappoint European leftists, including Labour’s Ed Miliband, who may already regret his protocol-defying meeting in Paris with the now deeply unpopular Hollande soon after his election in 2012.
Valls has always been close to former socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, mother of Hollande’s four children, who was made environment and energy minister on Wednesday. In line with the despairing feel to the new cabinet, Royal was rejected in parliamentary elections as recently as 2012, just as she was in the presidential poll five years earlier. Valls is a more astute politician than vain and evidently undemocratic socialists such as Royal, but he is first and foremost an ambitious party worker, whose expertise lies in strategy and spin, rather than policy. With no tangible experience of economics, and a profile that raises suspicion among an increasingly nationalistic electorate, Manuel from Barcelona is unlikely to be François Hollande’s saviour.