By Richard Blais
Politics always leave room for unexpected twists of events and incongruous stories. It was to the surprise of many that former French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, announced in 2018 he would leave every office he has in France and attempt to be elected mayor of the city of Barcelona. Such surprising news began to take a more concrete shape when on October 2nd, Manuel Valls publicly resigned at the French National Assembly in order to focus solely on his political campaign abroad. This election occurs in a turbulent context due to the actions of the Catalan independentists last year, and the designation of the mayor of Barcelona is yet another fight between those who wish to remain within the Spanish nation, and those who crave for independence.
A Former French Prime Minister in Spain?
Why would a French politician aim for an office in Barcelona? Good question, right?! Manuel Valls is not alien to the Catalan city, as he was actually born there and only became a regular French citizen at the age of 20. He was approached by the centre-right party Ciudadanos (Citizens), as this pro-European, liberal and mostly loyalist party could see in Manuel Valls a potential candidate for their programme. This new party, created in 2006, yet never “won” any major city nor any major leading figures.(1) On the other hand, Manuel Valls always advocated for a united Spain when commenting the 2017 turmoil in Barcelona, stating on French television that “Catalonia without Spain is not Catalonia”.
But Manuel Valls’s political stance in favour of a united Spain is not the only reason which drove him to risk a defeat in Barcelona. What is generally unknown to the foreign and Spanish public is how much he is despised by the French population. Valls suffered from former president Hollande’s contagious unpopularity – reaching records of disappointment among the French population.(2) Generally speaking, Manuel Valls left an impression of being an authoritarian and stubborn Prime Minister. At the end of Hollande’s mandate, Manuel Valls tried to be elected as head of his party, the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) for the presidential election, which he failed, as its members were seduced by the more original programme of Benoit Hamon. Despite the party’s indications to support the elected candidate, Manuel Valls, probably because of his drastically opposed political convictions, as well as hoping for an office, stated he would rather support Emmanuel Macron for the election.
However, after the election, Valls was not offered any position within the government, and had to get himself elected in his usual constituency after a razor-thin election (only 139 votes ahead) for the office of deputy. His political life seemingly in an impasse, it might explain why the former Prime Minister saw in Spain an opportunity to start over with a new political life. It is then, on October 2nd that Valls said farewell to the National Assembly, receiving a standing ovation from the deputies of his party, when the opponents of La France Insoumise (Radical Left) raised placards with “good riddance” written on them.
“A Lighthouse not only for Catalonia, but also for Spain”
Valls’ arrival in Spain provoked mixed reactions in the Spanish and Catalonian media and in the political sphere. Generally speaking, it is possible to observe two very different reactions depending on political orientations. As one may expect, independentists are infuriated by the arrival of this foreign politician who remains unknown to Barcelonans. For instance, Carles Puigdemont (Catalonia’s former president) described him as “a candidate who doesn’t know Barcelona, who is not known by Barcelona” to the AFP. On the other hand, articles in newspapers advocating for a united Spain are nothing but surprising for me, as a Frenchman. ABC, a royalist newspaper presents him as “an elitist candidate […] which did not come to beg, but to demand that we keep up with the grandeur of that city” in an article titled The beautiful light from Paris(3), an opinion which is not isolated in this newspaper, as one the colleagues of this same author calls Manuel Valls in another article “a lighthouse not only for Catalonia, but also for Spain”.(4)
The “Ramon Bosch Factor”
Yet, despite the enthusiasm of ABC, it appears that Manuel Valls’ election in May 2019 is not a bet won in advance by the Franco-Spanish candidate. Recent revelations made by radical-left journalist Jordi Borras underlined the role and influence of a key advisor in Valls’s campaign, Josep Ramon Bosch. Ramon Bosch is a vital partner for Manuel Valls, as he possesses a wide network of politicians and CEOs strongly opposed to Catalan independence. However, he is also one of the co-founders of Somatemps, an extreme-right movement he created with neo-Nazis political figures.(5) In 2015, it had been revealed by the same journalist, Jordi Borras, that Ramon Bosch was using an alias to upload on YouTube fascist propaganda videos and he was even photographed attending events ran by Franco’s sympathisers.(6)
Manuel Valls’ campaign aims at gathering those in favour of a united Spain in Barcelona, and the election will most likely oppose him to Ada Calau, from the Radical left and the independentists. In case he does not win this election, Manuel Valls stated he would quit the political scene. But judging by the habit of French politicians of saying such a thing, in order to have later a sensational come back (a tradition with famous representatives such as former president Sarkozy), it is most likely that Manuel Valls will pursue his career in politics no matter the result of this election. Despite speaking Spanish and Catalonian perfectly, he still keeps a slightly French accent.
(1) Qu’est-ce que Ciudadanos, la nouvelle vedette politique espagnole? (La Tribune)
(2) Côtes de popularité au plus bas pour François Hollande et Manuel Valls (Le Monde)
(3) La Bella Luz de Paris (ABC)
(4) Manuel Valls (ABC)
(5) El President de SCC penja videos de propaganda feiwista amb la seva propria veu a YouTube (elMón)
(6) Qui est Josep Ramon Bosch, le sulfureux conseiller de Manuel Valls (France TV Info)
Featured picture credit: Ministerio del Interior.