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Manuel Valls on the challenges facing France

Octavian Report: What are the biggest challenges that France is currently facing, and what should be done to address them?

Manuel Valls: The challenges that France faces concern not only France, but all of Europe and the whole world. Obviously France is pursuing economic and social reforms, but the greatest difficulty that France faces right now concerns the E.U. This is a challenge that France has been facing for a long time and it still has not been resolved.

There’s Brexit. There are significant tensions between eastern Europe and western Europe. We also have major political crises taking place in Spain and in Italy. When you consider the problem with the eurozone, migratory issues, and the threat of terrorism, all this requires Europe to give renewed meaning to its political project. I see this as the main challenge for France. What concerns me terribly is that there is no will in Europe to face all of these challenges.

OR: Do you see any scenario that would ultimately resolve the euro crisis or do you think it stems from irreconcilable difference between the constituent countries, especially France and Germany?

Valls: If there is no reconciliation, if there is no response to these challenges, then Europe will exit the historical stage. We can’t forget that the European population only represents eight percent of the world population. If Europe doesn’t take measures to protect itself, if it doesn’t take measures to stem the migration flow, if it doesn’t take measures against the threat of terrorism, against trade wars — no, Europe must find a response. This must be through an entente between France and Germany.

OR: How would you rate the job that Emmanuel Macron has done so far?

Valls: The fact that Macron was elected in the context of everything that is happening in Europe is nothing short of a miracle. It’s a great opportunity for France, and France has great luck that in this context she has a president who is progressive, reformist, and a Europeanist.

He is the embodiment of a strong presence for France in Europe and overseas. This was certainly evident when he went to Washington recently. He also is an embodiment of the possibility of overcoming the division between the Left and Right. I think this is a response to the populism found on the extreme Left and the extreme Right.

Finally, his mandate is to undertake economic, social, and political reforms. Even the French who don’t agree with aspects of this reform recognize that these reforms are taking place and that France is moving forward. The economic situation is decent. This in part because of the overall world situation, because of the situation in Europe, and also because of the reforms that I undertook as Prime Minster — which have borne fruit under Macron’s premiership.

There are four risks I can see in front of us. The first one is the euro crisis. The second is that the unemployment rate remains too high. Also there is this feeling among the working and middle classes that inequality persists at the social level. Then finally we have the terrorist risk and political Islam, and the questioning of our social model. This is a risk for France and for Europe.

OR: What is in your view is the best way to reinvigorate the centrist platform and to stem the tide of illiberalism?

Valls: That’s the most difficult question. We all — everyone, everywhere — must make an effort to work together and to have a centrist government. I believe that we should govern in the center and from the center, but in a centralized way. I think that we need very strong economic policies for our private sector to create jobs and opportunities for young people. We have to be extremely strong when it comes to providing security in the face of terrorism. We have to have a very strong voter protection policy within Europe, and a very strong policy of cooperation with Africa (whose population will double by 2050). We have to be much more efficient when it comes to curbing inequality so that we can embark on a third way.

I recognize that if we are to govern from the center, we can open the doors to populist movements from both the Left and the Right — and now the debate is not really about being Right or Left. Today the vital battle is to preserve the democratic system against populism.

European democracy, the preservation of European civilization: this is the fight that all democrats have to wage against populist movements. The big challenge is that we have to be on all fronts at the same time. We have to fight the extreme right, anti-Semitism, racism. We also have to fight Islamism and the anti-Semitism which results from it. We have to convince people that Europe and democracy are the necessary response, although a lot of people doubt this.

OR: What is your assessment the significant rise in anti-Semitism in France? What can be done to counter that?

Valls: Yes, the rise of antisemitism is visible in France, but also in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and in the United States. In France, anti-Semitism has its roots in the Arab-Muslim world. All of it is based on Judeophobia and hate for Israel. Among the six million Muslims who live in France, you will find Islamists who carry with them hate for Israel and Jews. This is the heart of the anti-Semitism within France. At the heart of Islam is where the debate, where the fight has to start. It has to start within the Islamic community fighting this extremism.

OR: What is the most effective way for France to counteract that?

Valls: I think this will take a generation, so we are in it for the long haul. In France the battle is being carried out in four fields. The first is security and training and cooperation among different countries. I’m very concerned about the 100 or so combatants who have left Syria and Iraq to go to other countries in the world and hurt them. The second issue that concerns me centers on our prisons, which are places of recruitment for Islamists: we have 500 terrorists currently in prison now, and we have 1,500 people convicted of other crimes, not terrorist crimes, who have been radicalized while being in prison. The third is schools and universities, where we need to wage a battle against Islamism and obscurantism. Then the main challenge: poor neighborhoods. Of the children who live in these neighborhoods, the estimate is that there are about between 15,000 and 20,000 who have been radicalized. We do expect more terrorist attacks, more tension. We have to be prepared for that.

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.