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Manuel Valls, the Whitewasher

Enric Vila

Manuel Valls is a whitewasher, a soul beaten by the harshness of the past that returns to Catalonia to bury the dead and to offer a sweet and painless oblivion to the heirs from undigested defeats. Tired of seeing his predecessors fail, the former French prime minister has become a presumptuous facade that seeks solace in the shadows of power.

One of his great-grandparents was buried wrapped in the Catalan flag after insisting, pointlessly, on drafting his last will in Catalan. Another, Agustí Valls, wrote a poem about Rafael de Casanova, recited in a tribute to Rubió i Ors and said to be the origin of the Diada of September 11.

His paternal grandfather, the last owner of the Bank Valls, taught Catalan in secrecy after seeing his business go bankrupt during the Spanish Republic. His musician uncle, whose name was also Manuel, composed Barça’s anthem and the musical score from The Burned City, the best movie by Antoni Ribas, the filmmaker who chained himself at Plaça Sant Jaume to denounce the marginalization of Catalan productions.

His father immigrated to Paris in the late 40’s to succeed as a painter. When Valls became prime minister, the newspapers revealed that at school he was ashamed to mention his father’s trade. His mother was a Swiss architect who spoke Catalan to her children in a difficult time for the language, which struggled to survive the last Spanish dictatorship. It is not difficult to think she was imbued with the intense patriotism that ran in the family.

Despite the Bank Valls failure, his family was never short of resources. His father was a slow-producing artist who avoided easy success, but who could afford to spend hours correcting a line or a bad brushstroke. The former prime minister studied at the best schools in Paris and spent his summers in a modernist villa in Horta surrounded by books. His sister returned to live in Barcelona, where she spent twenty years fighting her addiction to heroin that she had acquired in Paris.

Like many people hurt in their pride, the former prime minister is a practical man, who has lost his sense of transcendence trying to escape from his family burdens. For years, the press would give him the “Sarkozy of the Left” label. Like Carla Bruni’s husband, Valls has cultivated an image of a daring and sexy politician, of Bonapartist resonances. Because he has an unrefined idea of pragmatism, he is a politician who promises more than gives.

At the age of 20, he became a French citizen. At 25, he was already an adviser to the Prime Minister Michel Rocard. Later, he managed the press office of Lionel Jospin, in whose entourage he was considered a Catalan nationalist. In 2001, he was awarded the mayorship of Evry, after buying a flat to present his candidature. Although the municipality was a Socialist fief, during the 12 years he ruled, he multiplied the security and propaganda budget. He also raised taxes to the point that the city still pays some of the highest rates in France.

Like Sarkozy, Valls ended up making a name for himself in French politics as the interior minister. During the presidency of François Hollande, his iron hand rounded off the image he had built of himself as a resolute politician, which is quite revered in disconnected societies, led by elites who are afraid of losing their status. In 2014, a government crisis raised him to prime minister at the height of France’s political collapse.

The arrival of Macron caught him off guard, and he did not have time to escape the collapse of the party system and, especially, the collapse of the statist Left. Eliminated from the race to the presidency by a little-known candidate, in the last elections he struggled to keep his deputy seat to the National Assembly. Without the prestige that power gave him, he began to reveal what he was up to and, lately, he has been looking like a bumblebee trying to get out of a glass jar.

After breaking with his party and being rejected by Macron, he has allowed being courted by Ciutadans, as Sarkozy allowed to be courted by the Partido Popular when the party had not been yet accused of corruption. The growth of the independence movement has given such status to Barcelona that the geopolitics of the War of Succession has once again emerged. Richard Florida had already written a decade ago, in his essay on creative cities, that Paris is wary of the Catalan capital, something that has always been known in the Principality.

Ciutadans has offered Valls to run with their party for the mayorship of Barcelona. Valls is an ideal figure to whitewash the past. He might be tempted to allow himself to be used by the bad guys who are trying to plunder Spain and prevent the world from knowing why the devil Catalonia has gone unnoticed for so many centuries.

Had Valls not been a loser disguised by the system, the implosion of French politics would not have caught him so unprepared. Nonetheless, regardless of what he decides to do, the Ciutadans’ proposal once again places the focus on the old European fracture between the countries that prioritize equality to rob more effectively and the countries that prioritize freedom to promote trade and culture.

Translated from Catalan by Fernando Beato.