Why a Cop Is France’s Favorite Politician

French Interior Minister Manual Valls law-and-order drive has made him the darling of opinion polls, while approval ratings of President François Hollande and other leaders plummet amid the hardening economic crisis.

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Vincent Kessler / Reuters

France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech during the official inauguration of Strasbourg Grand Mosque in Strasbourg, Sept. 27, 2012.

Who is France’s most popular politician in this era dominated by bleak economic forecasts amid fears about the euro’s very existence?

It isn’t the cabinet members struggling to balance public finances, halt plant closures, slow rising unemployment, or offsetting bitter austerity measures with huge, public-pleasing tax hikes for the rich. It also isn’t President François Hollande, who—like fellow Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault—has seen his approval ratings plunge. And it certainly isn’t any of France’s conservative heavyweights currently diving their time between attacks on the ruling left, and bashing each other in the battle for the leadership of France’s right.

Instead, the darling of French voters is Interior Minister Manuel Valls, whose unapologetic hardline stance on law and order in responding to an alarming crime wave has won him fans on the left and right alike. Indeed, Valls’ activism on security issues (and ubiquitous presence in French media) has earned him comparisons from both sides of the political divide to conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. It was by serving as Interior Minister in the early- and mid-2000s that anti-crime crusader Sarkozy first won the admiration of safety-concerned voters who later flocked to his victorious 2007 presidential bid—an Elysée ambition Valls clearly shares. Yet if that likeness to Sarkozy has been much noted by French pundits—and grudgingly acknowledged by conservative politicians—it has sparked criticism from his own camp that Valls is actually a conservative in Socialist clothes. As such, Valls may France’s most popular official, but the least liked pol among his peers.

Be that as it may, Valls’ popularity has confirmed the belief Sarkozy repeatedly embraced to scale to the top of political power: that at any given time, a majority of French voters will be just as concerned about security as they are about all other issues—and will reward leaders who take those worries seriously with action.

Just how popular is top cop Valls? A new poll by Paris Match puts his approval rating at an impressive 75%. His lowest level in surveys is 57%—still tops in the field. By contrast, both Hollande and Ayrault—who formed government along with Valls in May—have seen their early numbers nearing 60% plummet to around 40%. The two key cabinet members battling France’s economic slump and debt crisis have fallen about 25 points behind Valls in the Paris Match survey. Such sliding isn’t likely to slow soon. The government plans a deficit-reducing 2013 budget featuring both big tax increases and hefty budget cuts—neither of which will remedy France’s stagnating growth and rising joblessness soon. Valls, by contrasts, appears to many voters as the guy acting on their security concerns—and getting significant results—in real time.

This presents Hollande with a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Valls’ popularity acts to offset public cooling towards a gaffe-prone government that—like the President and prime minister—is criticized for being slow to act, and timid when it does. On the other, Valls’ popularity could increase pressure on Hollande as time goes on—and public impatience rises—to boost his own standing by sacrificing Ayrault for a more alluring premier, with Valls being the obvious choice.

Yet the one place that appeal isn’t as strong is among leftists who don’t see much difference between Valls’ Interior Ministry action and that of Sarkozy—the latter’s bombastic language aside. Some Socialists openly groused—while foes on the right cheered—when Valls resumed the much decried Sarkozy-era campaign of breaking up Roma camps and deporting their undocumented residents as a crime-fighting measure. Similarly, in August, Valls waded into belligerent crowdsà la Sarko—in riot-stricken housing projects of Amiens. Within the melee, Valls delivered the promise-cum-warning that order would be restored and then dispatched police reinforcements to the area to prove his point.

Valls was visible in Marseille in past weeks responding to a spree of gang murders there—and more recently overseeing the replacement of an entire Marseille police unit busted for involvement in kick-backs, complicity in drug dealing, and extortion. He has also led a reinvigorated drive to battle Islamist extremists —resulting in the October dismantling of an allegedly operative terrorist cell. This week Valls responded with outrage to the Oct. 16 assassination of a leading Corsican lawyer by suspected nationalists who frequently double as pillars of the Mediterranean island’s organized crime organizations. The following morning, Valls vowed to “attack this mafia, [and] those gangrening Corsican society”.

Valls is aware that kind of talk doesn’t thrill most Sarkozy-reviling Socialists. But the boyish-looking 50 year-old hasn’t gotten this far by bending to prevailing conventions. A native of Spain who moved to France in his youth and was naturalized as an adult, Valls set down his political roots in Évry—an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged Paris suburb. As mayor, Valls used a mix of social assistance programs and tough law enforcement to maintain order in Évry’s troubled housing projects. Meantime, he’s maintained traditional French secularity amid the town’s diverse cultural and religious population. In 2002, Valls provoked controversy by ordering a local supermarket that began stocking only halal foods to broaden its variety of goods or be shut down on grounds of religious discrimination.

But Valls probably learned his biggest lesson on the importance of security matters in French politics earlier in 2002, after extending his job as spokesman and communications strategist for popular Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin into the premier’s presidential bid. During campaigning, Jospin largely dismissed the right’s hammering of law-and-order issues as unfounded, manipulative fear mongering. Indeed, official statistics showed that under the Jospin government’s low-key crime fighting approach, lawlessness in France had been on the decline. A frightened French public felt differently, however, and reacted by lifting extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen ahead of Jospin and into the presidential run-off with conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac. The result stunned the nation—and left stupefied Socialists adrift for nearly a decade.

Neither Valls or Hollande are willing to make that error of negligence again—especially given the rising influence of the new extreme-right leader, Marine Le Pen, and moves among mainstream conservatives to broaden their base by leaning hard in her direction. Whether they’re jealous of Valls’ popularity or wary of its source, ruling leftists would be wise to nuzzle up to rather than recoil from the Interior Minister’s peaking allure. Doing so might just help improve the entire government’s appeal—and win back waning public confidence Team Hollande will need to surmount the dire economic challenges France faces.