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France

Manuel Valls: Hollande's action man

French President Hollande has been restructuring his cabinet after his party's local election defeat. Manuel Valls, his newly appointed prime minister, is popular with the public, but controversial among party members.

He's supposed to save Francois Hollande's hapless presidency: Manuel Valls, who until now has been France's interior minister, will take over from current Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Valls, who is 51 years old, is considered to be hard-working, ambitious and determined. "Francois Hollande has certainly sought out a difficult politician," said Henrik Uterwedde, a political scientist at the Franco-German Institute ( Deutsch-Französischen Institut) in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

"But he's one of the few who remains in favor with the French population," Uterwedde added. Valls has been by far the most popular minister of the rather unpopular governmental team, Uterwedde told DW in an interview.

Hard-working, ambitious, smart

Valls, the son of a Spanish immigrant, began his political career at age 17 by becoming a member of the French Socialist Party. He became a supporter of the "New Left" movement, a youth movement which subscribed to social democratic ideas, and also supported Michel Rocard, Hollande's rival within the Socialist Party.

After serving in the military and completing his history studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Valls quickly ascended in the Socialist Party ranks. In the 1990s, he became spokesman for former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. In 2001, he was elected mayor of Ortes Evry near Paris, and the following year he became a Member of the French National Assembly. He made a bid for president within the Socialist Party in 2009 and although he didn't win, he succeeded in getting himself noticed.

As Francois Hollande's spokesman, Valls contributed greatly to the president's successful campaign in 2012. Hollande rewarded Vall by granting him the key post of interior minister.

Law-and-order man

French Interior minister Manuel Valls, left, and President Francois Hollande, walk in the hall of the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, Wednesday, March 19, 2014 (Photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Valls could become Hollande's rival in a bid for the French presidency

In contrast to the hesitancy and aimlessness associated with his predecessor Ayrault, the French see Valls as an energetic and hands-on politician.

France's new prime minister is also considered to be a law-and-order type. He won over French hearts with public appearances at disasters and police events. His hard line against illegal immigrants has made him popular at the traditionally conservative interior ministry.

But Valls has opponents among the left. Discriminatory comments against Roma have led to human rights organizations accusing him of hate speech - even the EU reprimanded him. But most French approve of such statements.

"He's an ambitious, energetic politician who doesn't shy away from saying just what he thinks, and he doesn't always express himself with political correctness," Uterwedde said. "This has often fueled internal party conflicts."

Conservative socialist

As a representative for the right wing of the Socialist Party, Valls continues to butt heads. He sees leftist accomplishments like the 35-hour workweek or retirement at 60 as unviable. He'd prefer to strike the name and practice of socialism from the party name and its program altogether.

"He doesn't represent the socialist mainstream, rather he represents the conservative branch," said Norbert Wagner of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation ( Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung) in Paris. Regardless, Wagner thinks Valls has what it takes to assert himself in the party. "He has the assertiveness - and also the communication abilities," Wagner told DW.

Difficult tasks

Valls is becoming prime minister to a France in crisis: unemployment is at more than 10 percent, while sovereign debt amounts to more than 90 percent of the gross domestic product.

The new prime minister will be taking up the reins of Hollande's "Responsibility Pact" - involving tax cuts for businesses in an attempt to stimulate job growth - which is extremely unpopular among the left.

Demonstrators take part in a march calling for a sixth republic to be established with a new constitution in Paris, May 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Leftists have expressed strong opposition to proposed austerity measures

He'll also have to make progress in cutting sovereign debt. And Valls will need to do all this while facing party and public expectations for policies that are socially friendly. It's no simple task, as Uterwedde pointed out

"You'll need a robust politician, who's not afraid to face criticism and resistance," Uterwedde said. "This path is highly controversial among leftist voters and the left in the party," he added.

And Valls' success could represent a danger for Hollande. Wagner believes that during his term, Valls will consider running for president in 2017.

"If Hollande continues to perform poorly in polls, Valls will surely use that opportunity," Wagner concluded.

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