Manuel Valls is the most popular Socialist minister, more popular by far than either the president or the prime minister. He had harsh words the other day for the Romani--les Roms--living in France: "their way of life is extremely different from ours." Cécile Duflot, minister of housing, refused to let this pass, despite strong support for Valls from a number of Socialist mayors.
This little passe d'armes is more than just another episode in France's contentious relationship with its Romani population. It is a manifestation of a new cleavage in a Left already deeply divided over economic issues, European integration, and environmental concerns. The Romani are but the latest symbol of l'insécurité. Beyond that, as I noted yesterday, Duflot is in the process of reasserting her control over EELV, which lost its leader Pascal Durand yesterday. She is very likely preparing to leave the government (a sinking ship) to return to active political life at the helm of the Greens, a role in which she will be free to criticize the sitting government. This salvo at Valls is a first indication that she will not pull her punches once she leaves office.
Meanwhile, Valls is positioning himself to become the heir apparent to the failed Hollande leadership. He has staked out a distinctive position among the young contenders. His critics may see this position as nothing more than "Sarkozy lite," if not "Le Pen lite," but it's popular not only in the polls but also with Socialists governing at the local level, which is where l'insécurité lives. At the national level, the Socialist Party is now rubble, with Hollande's approval rating running in the low 20s, but at the local and regional level the Socialists remain a force to contend with. And that is where Valls is building his candidacy, while potential rivals like Montebourg court an imaginary constituency.
So what happens when the Front National emerges from next year's municipal elections with, perhaps, more votes than the UMP? Hollande might well turn to Valls as the next prime minister as a way of telling the French "Je vous ai compris."