If he succeeds, Manuel Valls will re-shape French socialism

Unlike Tony Blair when he emerged in the 1990s, Mr Valls is a lonely voice in France. He represents no broad desire for new thinking on the left

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Here is a curious fact. Manuel Valls, the new French Prime Minister, and Anne Hidalgo, the new Mayor of Paris, were born in Catalonia. Both emigrated as children. Their stories suggest that France is not as closed as some would suggest – or others would like. There are lessons there for Britain too.

But what should we make of Mr Valls? Is he, as some claim, a French Tony Blair, who believes that left-wing politics must adapt to the global 21st century? Or is he a barely left-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who believes that the world should make way for his personal ambition?

His appointment by President François Hollande appears coherent. The Socialists suffered a calamitous defeat in local elections at the weekend. Mr Hollande has already moved his economic policy significantly to the right. Mr Valls is a charismatic and plain-spoken critic of the statist, secular religion of the Socialist party. He seems the obvious standard-bearer for Mr Hollande’s new-found belief in market-oriented “social democracy”.

And yet Mr Hollande agonised over the choice. The problem, as he knew, was that Mr Valls is despised in a large section of the Socialist party. Unlike Tony Blair when he emerged in the 1990s, Mr Valls is a lonely voice in France. He represents no broad desire for new thinking on the left. The Greens, partners in the previous Jean-Marc Ayrault government, have refused to serve under him. As a result, the new government’s majority in the National Assembly is, potentially, only one vote. Within that majority, there are many who would cheerfully see him fail.

Manuel Valls has three years to show that painful reform of a state-heavy economy can free the creative genius of France and generate growth and jobs. If he succeeds, he will be the Next Big Thing on the French left. He will break the stranglehold of the old ideological thinking in the Parti Socialiste.

If he fails – and the French Prime Minister’s job is a furnace for burning politicians – France will have a discredited left and a rudderless, leaderless centre-right. Marine Le Pen eagerly awaits developments.

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