A few days ago I wrote about Manuel Valls, France’s Prime Minister’s interesting use of language when talking about what he perceives as the real and ongoing threat posed by the Front National in France.
Today, Les Echoes, France’s most important financial newspaper, wrote a piece on an article that Valls had given to Le Parisien, where he talks about his pride in being French. Valls, 52 years old, was born in Barcelona in 1962, and moved with his family to France when he was young. He was naturalized French at the age of 18, and after that undertook his military service in the French army before studying History at the Sorbonne, and embarking on his political career.
In the past few days, and in the weeks leading up to the regional elections, Valls has really taken up the challenge of convincing the French not to vote for the Front National. In the interview, he discusses his path to French naturalization and paints himself as an immigration success story. As a reminder, the Front National’s view on immigration are particularly negative – in their opinion the high levels of immigration in Europe and in France (which they cynically say immigrants target because of the social benefits available) are costing France a huge amount of money, and bringing down workers’ salaries. The scale of immigration in France does not cater to a successful policy of assimilation, which is resulting in a loss of French identity and values, and a rise in Islamization.
In contrast to this, Valls’ story of successful immigration and integration is a great PR story telling exercise that serves to show that France is a country that allows and encourages immigrants to flourish and put their talents to use. Valls stipulates in the interview that he decided to become French not because it was a story of social mobility or because it was obligatory, but because he wanted to be part of ‘un projet, des valeurs…(une) communauté nationale’. (Valls wanted to be part of a project, collective values, a national community). Valls says that he wants young people to feel proud of being French and to get rid of the cliches and discriminations in place in French society which the Front National helps to prolongate. By also recognizing that the French elite should be more representative of French society in general, Valls is trying to position himself as a role model for France’s disaffected youth and prove that immigrants or children of immigrants can succeed, and even reach high office in France. This is a neat, clean PR story telling exercise and there is no doubt it catches the attention, but one can’t help but think that it would be more powerful if it were coming from say, Najat Vallaud-Belkcem, the minister for Education, who was born in Morocco, and also acquired French nationality at the age of 18. This because, although Valls’ story is affecting, Spanish or European immigration is not what the Front National is getting so cross about. They are on the war path against unskilled immigrants fleeing war zones, and they are ramping up the now decades old tension against the steady flow of immigrants who come to settle in France’s banlieues, from France’s former colonies, such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is therefore a slightly more relevant example of successful integration. That being said, it might not be surprising that this kind of smooth PR comes from Valls’ camp; between 1997 to 2001 he was in charge of the communication strategy for Lionel Jospin, then Prime Minister.
However, returning to Valls’ statement that in becoming French he was more adhering to a collective notion, an ideal (again, if I can say so, quite an intellectual way of acquiring French nationality – not through a desperate need to find a job or to not be deported), it’s interesting once again to look at his rhetoric and how cross he got in parliament recently when Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the rising stars of the Front National, accused his party of stealing from the French (reference to several Swiss bank accounts that have been discovered in the rangs of the Parti Socialiste over the years) and of ignoring the 30% of French who vote for Marine Le Pen. Valls, his tone progressively mounting, swore to campaign against the Front National and called once again on the French, saying it was their duty to vote in the upcoming elections, because he is afraid that ‘ce pays, mon pays, ma France’ (this country, my country, my France) will regret voting for the Front National. He furiously riposted the claim that the Parti Socialiste wasn’t properly representing the French, saying that the MPs of the Front National were ‘serial offenders’ when it comes to sexist, racist and homophobic statements and that; ‘vous trompez les gens, vous trompez le petits gens, vous trompez les ouvriers, les agriculteurs, vous trompez ceux qui souffrent…’ (You are cheating French people, you’re cheating ordinary people, you’re cheating the workers, the farmers, those who suffer…’. Finally, he swore to ‘stigmatize’ the Front National, and to show that ‘vous êtes ni la République, ni la France’. (You represent neither France, nor the Republic). This kind of sweeping rhetoric, evoking the notion of ‘ma’ France, and the importance of the Republic goes to show that Valls adheres strongly to those values he claimed to feel at 18 years old, which coincide with the ideal of what it is to be French – unquestioning adherence to the values of the Republic. Yet the question is whether this kind of rhetoric designed to stir up the hearts and mind of those who listen to him will be effective when it comes to winning back disenfranchised voters, and will enable them to feel this pride in being in French that Valls says he wants to bring back. They might be more inclined to follow Maréchal-Le Pen, who told Valls:; ‘Gardez done votre mépris et vos leçons de République pour votre propre parti’ (Reserve your contempt and your moral on what it is to be a Republican for your own party). It’s possible that this kind of modernist politics (essentially telling a very well established politician to get stuffed) might be more attractive than a bourgeois politician often nicknamed ‘premier flic de France’ (France’s chief police officer. Word play – Valls’ official title is Premier Ministre) or a left-wing Sarkozy, in honor of his hardline tactics on issues such as crime and, ironically, immigration.
However, Valls also mentioned the laudable fact that few governments can boast of having as diverse a representation of successful immigration as France’s currently. It’s true that alongside him, there is the aforementioned Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Fleur Pellerin, Minister for Culture, who was born in South Korea, and Christine Taubira, Minister for Justice, who is from Cayenne, French Guinea. I thought it would be interesting to compare this with the current British government. Deputy Prime Minister; Nick Clegg, educated at Westminster and Cambridge; Nicky Morgan, Minister for Education, educated at Oxford and Chris Grayling, Minister for Justice, educated at Cambridge. The only exception to this list is Sajid Javid, Minister for Culture, who is the son of immigrants and who wasn’t educated at Oxbridge, and could be considered a poster child for successful integration. It’s ironic that Britain traditionally has a reputation for being a more ‘multicultural’ society than France, yet it is in France that at this moment this has filtered through to the elites at the top. It’s also worth noting that three of the French ministers talked about above are women, whereas only one of the British examples is female. There are currently 8 female ministers who attend cabinet in Britain, whereas in France there are at least 15.
It’s very interesting to follow Valls’ efforts to reposition the Socialist Party as less Champagne Socialists, but as a party representative of French society. It’s right to say that that cliches and discrimination need to be got rid of, and to point out that the cabinet does show a diverse slice of French society, but I am not sure that Valls is wholly convincing on immigration yet.