French Connection

An Interview with Manuel Valls

OR: How do you think that France should reconcile its long commitment to religious freedom with laicité and with national security? Where do you think that line is not being drawn appropriately right now?

Valls: I think it has been drawn in the right place. I think that laicité is the right solution to our problems. Because laicité means the freedom to believe or not to believe, to convert or not to convert as one chooses. It's a separation between the state and cults. I also think that it helps secure equality between men and women.

We must successfully integrate Islam in our societies in Europe and France. This is a relatively new religion on our soil. It has now become a French and European religion. I think Macron must — and I think the majority are ready for this — accept that the laws of the state are applicable to everyone. They must accept the fact that the religion is a personal matter. There is a strong minority, and I'm not talking about the terrorists, among French Muslims who believe that sharia law should be applied at the national level as part of the legal system.

We are asking Islam to do within just a few years what other religions accomplished over many years. I think we have to hold on to our values, the values of laicité and legality. I think that is how we'll prevail.

OR: How do you assess the Trump administration from a European perspective? Do you think that trans-Atlantic relations will recover? How do you gauge the challenge from China to the West in a world of post-American leadership?

Valls: At a time when Europe has many challenges, there are additional issues that France and Europe must face. The first is Brexit. This is very dramatic for me. Especially in the context of an unstable world. Because France and the U.K. are both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Both have nuclear defense capabilities.

When we took military action in Syria it was with the U.K. and with the U.S., not with other European countries. I'm talking about the air raids that were conducted against the Assad regime in the spring. When it comes to our principal ally, the United States, our fear is that the U.S. is making unilateral choices right now.

The decisions made by the Trump administration on the climate agenda or the nuclear agreement with Iran or a possible trade war — all these are very concerning to Europeans. This is why Macron was right to insist with Trump and in front of the Congress that we need very strong relations between France, Europe, and the United States. This is in the geopolitical context and in the trade context.

I think this is the same response we need to give China. Around the globe we need a high-quality relationship between U.S. and Europe.

OR: How big of a concern is Russia to you in terms of its fueling disruption internally across Europe?

Valls: This is a reality that concerns us. We have to say to the Russians very clearly that this way of behaving is unacceptable. At the same time, we have to be able to dialogue with Putin and the Russians. I believe that we do have strategic interests in common with Russia: the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, the energy field. I think that Russia has a very serious problem from a demographic and an economic point of view. Russia needs Europe. Russia is in part European. We have a civilization in common. We need to dialogue and move forward together. We also to have do this with a level of frankness and to refuse their interference in our democratic systems.

OR: How do you see the crisis in Catalonia playing out? Is there any truth to the rumors that you will be involved in Spain politically?

Valls: There are two countries I know that are undergoing serious crisis. Italy faces major economic and financial risks brought by uncertainty over the coalition that governs the country. There is also the migration issue. In Spain the risk is separatism: Europe is a union of nation-states.

If we allow these countries — who had been at war and then knew a period of peace for over 60 years — to dismember that union, to separate, then we will experience war once again. Given my origins, I have been very involved in the debate in Spain over Catalonia. A proposal was made that I become a candidate for mayor in Barcelona a year from now. It's a wonderful idea: I was born in Barcelona, it's a worldly city. This would be a wonderful example of European-ness.

I love challenges and adventures, but this would entail a very significant change in my personal and professional life. I'm studying this idea, I'm reflecting on it, and I will make a decision.

OR: Do you see in the short term a significant return of the euro crisis, or another threat to the E.U. as an institution? Do you think that the euro and the European Union will survive?

Valls: Italy’s debt levels and its financial and banking systems certainly are a great source of concern in the short term. If the League and the 5-Star Movement carry out their policies, then I think a crisis can happen very quickly. Italians voted for these parties; we have to respect that. It's up to them now to govern. We have to keep a dialogue open with them. They have to understand that their policies could lead Italy into major crisis.

Bank interest rates have already gone up. There are tensions not only in Italy but also in Spain. In economic terms, Italy and Spain have not agreed upon that. We are not talking about two, three years there, but in the coming weeks.

The euro is obviously a very important element at the heart of Europe. We have no choice: we have to preserve Europe and the euro. Otherwise it's the end of our history. That's a big task.