The news that Manuel Valls had been made Prime Minister of France this week came as something of a surprise to the world—though less so, perhaps, the more one knows of him. Last November, I had the chance to spend some extended time with Valls, who was then the Minister of the Interior, while writing a piece for The New Yorker about Roma immigrants in France. He’s an impressive guy—unusual, for a French politician, or any politician, for that matter, in being ferocious, intelligent, uncompromising, and straight-talking, if a little humorless. He lacks Sarkozy’s savvy but also his vanity, not to mention the dark depths of a Mitterrand or the cynicism of a Chirac. Nor does he cultivate the suave, charmingly worldly—or liquidly evasive—manner of more conventional French politicians. (Not long ago, I spent time with a former French political grandee, and his tone was that of a philosopher who had been observing the whole scene from an amused distance for decades, rather than a man of action who had been right inside it.)
Valls—who spent much of his youth in Barcelona, only becoming a French citizen at the age of twenty—got the Prime Minister’s job right after some disastrous local election results for the ruling Socialist Party forced President François Hollande to reshuffle his government. In our interview, Valls spoke of himself, insistently, as a “man of the left”—but clearly meant not the economic left (he has urged his fellow socialists to drop the word “Socialist” from their name) but rather France’s Republican left, a left defined by its commitment to a secularized, universalist view of citizenship. He spoke of how he believed, as an immigrant himself, in a “strong model of integration, where all can keep their identity but still share in civic life, in the values of democracy, in an unashamed egalitarianism, and in a single language. That remains the French model, and it remains strong.” And he spoke out pointedly against what the French call “communitarianism,” meaning something similar to what we mean by “identity politics.”
Valls is a popular figure in France, though he’s been dipping in the polls recently for a variety of reasons. (He played an ambiguous role in a strange affair involving the wiretapping of former President Sarkozy’s phone calls.) The good opinion he’s enjoyed has mostly been owing to his straightforward manner, which many in France see as a consequence of his Spanish-Catalan background. He has been popular, too, because of his tough line on “security” issues, meaning questions of crime and public safety—his willingness to expel illegal-immigrant Roma was the ostensible subject of our interview last fall. A good Parisian friend, long a close observer of French politics, wrote to me of Valls, on the morning of his ascension, that “he is enormously ambitious, and envisions himself as a future President. He is quick, full of energy. The French like his gait, the strength in his voice and the clear and tough shape of his chin. They like the idea of ‘un homme fort’—while the former PM was marshmallowesque.”
It cost him something, too, to show the boldness necessary for his attempt to ban—say it flat out, to censor—the performances of Dieudonné, the comedian who popularized the unspeakably ugly “quenelle,” a reverse of the Nazi salute that is, indisputably, an anti-Semitic gesture, made all the worse by the kind of fatuous, egregious silliness with which it was offered. (“Oh, how can they be offended by our joking about a Nazi salute? You see, they’re the oversensitive ones,” and so on.) Dieudonné’s defenders insist that the quenelle is meant as a joke, which is, of course, exactly the problem: the scary thing is that, for some younger folks in France now, anti-Semitism is a joke, acceptable as a street insult. The quenelle is made as much in ignorance of French history as in defiance of it. Valls rightly got into some trouble for trying to stop a performer from performing, but his heart was in the right place. There should be some edge of ugliness that passes beyond the publicly acceptable.
Valls’s future as the Prime Minister, though, is as full of traps as the Hunger Games. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic is nearly as contradictory and irrational as our own (with its guarantee of vast overrepresentation of fields and the vast underrepresentation of cities), though, as with our own, its irrationalities are assumed to be a guarantor of its success. In the French case, the people vote for a legislative assembly, and the President, who is elected separately, appoints a Prime Minister from it—one who, in the original Gaullist scheme, would presumably be a happily obedient domestic servant of the President. But when the opposition elects a majority, the Prime Minister and the President are from different parties, and must “cohabit.” The weirder thing is that, when the President and the Prime Minister are from the same party, things can be even worse, because the Prime Minister, if he makes a success of the job, is immediately assumed to be a rival for the Presidency. The President, therefore, wants someone who is impeccably loyal and subservient—yet still entirely competent and capable of winning wide trust.
It’s a tough job, and the case history is littered with wrecks and burnouts. One view is that a trap is being set for Valls: he will be no more able to fix the problems in the French system than the previous guy, and will be neutered as a Presidential candidate. Hollande has been micromanaging the precise construction of Valls’s incoming cabinet: placing his ex-partner, and the mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, back in government after a time away—ascribed, in seventeenth-century style, to the influence of the now departed Official Girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler—and balancing the left with the right wings of the Socialist Party. Hollande is a skilled ringmaster of the “elephants” of the fractious Socialist Party, though it’s unclear if he has any gift, or vision, larger than the arrangement of factions.
It is possible to argue, as Paul Krugman has been doing lately, that the French crisis is overstated, even by the French, and that the top-heavy French state—which we are all supposed to sneer at and mock as we drive around in our Cadillacs—is actually performing pretty well through the crisis, at least as well as the grimly austere one of Britain. This may well be, from a pure economist’s calorie-counting point of view, true. And it is also true that the French will always tell you that there is a crisis in France.
But this crisis does have more of a basis in reality than in years past—the French, at least, think so. This reality is reflected in a general sense of stasis, and in a kind of low-ceiling claustrophobia. The state of a nation exists as a mix of feelings and facts, and right now the feeling of something fundamentally wrong is at large in France, in ways that are frightening to lovers of the country. This feeling is then reflected in the facts, inasmuch as the extreme-right National Front gathered a scary number of votes during the recent municipal elections, and is likely to win still more during the approaching European ones. (Granted, the “extreme right” National Front is a complex thing, on some specific policies to the left of our own Republican Party; I don’t think that the National Front is calling for the instant dismantling of national health insurance.)
That Hollande feels this too is evident, insofar as he is sufficiently desperate to make a Prime Minister of Valls, a man openly and unashamedly jockeying for the Presidency. However it turns out—and the odds are against a happy outcome—Valls seems to be an intelligent man of the unapologetic left who has unusual courage. As C. S. Lewis said, courage is not just one virtue but “the form of every virtue at the testing point.” France can use some now.