Rioting earlier this week in France’s northern city of Amiens has thrust the country’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls into the spotlight, as he attempts to shake off claims that the Socialist government is “lax” on security.
Although an uneasy calm has settled over France’s northern city of Amiens after rioting erupted there earlier this week, the violence has thrust the country’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls into the spotlight as he deals with the first major incident of civil unrest since French President François Hollande’s Socialist government came into power three months ago.

The riots in Amiens’ northern neighbourhoods left an extensive trail of damage. A number of buildings, including a nursery school, were left in ruins, and the charred remains of burnt-out cars littered the streets. Rioters also clashed with police forces, pelting them with objects and even firing shotgun pellets. Seventeen police officers were injured in the fray, one of whom was said to be in critical condition.

Tensions had scarcely eased by the time Valls arrived in Amiens the next day to take stock of the situation. The interior minister was swarmed by an angry crowd of around a hundred people as he tried to enter city hall. Valls later spoke out against the riots, saying “there is no excuse for shooting at the police, for shooting at law enforcement officers or burning public property… Republican law, order and justice must all find a place again here, in Amiens.”

Order has since been restored to Amiens, and Valls announced on Wednesday that police sent as reinforcements will stay in the city for the coming days to “guarantee a complete return to normality”. Yet in the wake of the riots, the country’s conservative UMP party did not hesitate to criticise the Socialist Party (PS) government’s approach to domestic security, an issue it has long played up as one of the political left’s major weaknesses.

“Sadly, one should not be surprised to see such violence”, said UMP party leader Jean François Copé, accusing the government of having sent “lax messages” on the issue of national security, a comment that was soon echoed by a number of other figures from within the UMP.

‘Sarkozy of the left’

Stock arguments on how the left is soft on crime, however, may be difficult to pin to Valls, whose political style doesn’t necessarily fit into a tidy, well-defined box. Although a longtime member of the PS, some of Valls’ more conservative views have earned him the nickname “the left-wing Sarkozy”.

“Valls’ approach to security leans toward the right”, Frédéric Sawicki, a political science professor at the Sorbonne, told FRANCE 24. “[He] has definitely broken the line on issues such as immigration, or even the economy.”

Originally from Barcelona, the 50-year-old Valls first began his political career in 1983 as a parliamentary attaché to an MP from France’s southeastern Ardèche region. Since then, he has served in a number of different roles, including government spokesperson for former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and as mayor of the southern Paris suburb of Evry.

Since Valls took on the job of interior minister three months ago, he has shown a resolute desire to use policy as a means to shift away from the image that the left doesn’t have what it takes to get tough on crime – an image the majority of French people apparently believe. According to a study by French polling centre Ifop published in Le Figaro, only 35 percent of French people believe that Hollande’s government is capable of “efficiently fighting security threats”.

Building a new image

In an effort to rebrand his party’s image, Valls has occasionally borrowed from policies put together under the Sarkozy administration, sometimes to the surprise of his political base. In June, the interior minister took a firm stance on immigration, announcing that he would maintain immigration quotas put in place by Sarkozy’s government, which only allowed 30,000 people to enter the country legally each year. The measure was justified, Valls explained, because of France’s struggling economy.

More recently, Valls defended the government’s controversial decision to expel members of the Roma community from camps across the country – another policy that hails from the Sarkozy administration. The move not only drew the ire of human rights groups, but also attracted the attention of the European Union, which said it would be monitoring the situation to make sure it did not breach any of the EU’s rules on immigration.

Although Valls has perpetuated some of Sarkozy’s more right-leaning policies, Sawicki warned against comparing the two politicians too closely.

“Their positions are not at all the same”, Sawicki said, pointing out that Valls has at times directly gone against or even reversed a number of Sarkozy’s domestic security policies.

“Sarkozy scaled back the size of the police and gendarmerie,” Sawicki explained. “The Socialists have committed to recruiting new police officers and identified priority security zones… Sarkozy also lowered the permanent presence of police in disadvantaged areas, which the Socialists have said they will change.”

Valls’ dynamic politics have made him one of the most popular politicians in France. A poll conducted by Ifop and published in the French magazine Paris Match in June found that Valls had scored a 66 percent approval rating, making him the most popular minister in Hollande’s government.

Although Valls has not completely silenced criticism from the right, he has begun to chip away at the idea that Socialists are soft on crime.