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Former French PM could become the next Barcelona mayor

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Former French PM could become the next Barcelona mayor

Manuel Valls is a Franco-Spanish politician.
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Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected on Tuesday to announce his candidacy to Barcelona's mayoral election — a position he is eligible for having been born in the coastal Spanish city.

Rumours of his departure across the Pyrenees mountain range have been circulating for months, fuelled by his not-so-quiet lobbying of Catalan public figures and repeated appearances in his native city.

But the potential move is raising eyebrows in both countries: in France because Valls remains an MP and in Spain, where Valls has not lived for years.

So why attempt the move and what are his chances?

An unpopular Prime Minister

Valls was French prime minister from 2014 to 2016 in the socialist government of president Francois Hollande. Much like his boss — regarded by some as the least popular French leader in decades — Valls' tenure at the head of the government was poorly received.

In November 2016, a month before he resigned to try his luck in the Socialist Party's primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election, only 31% of French people viewed his performance favourably, according to an Odoxa poll.

His standing within his political family deteriorated further a few months later after he backed Emmanuel Macron in the election instead of his own party's candidate, Benoit Hamon. He then quit the Socialist Party and joined the ranks of the ruling La Republique En Marche party as an MP for Essone, a department just south of Paris.

Spanish inquisition

For Antonio Barroso, a London-based political analyst at Teneo Intelligence, Valls' possible candidacy is the result of "a confluence of interest."

"Valls' political fortunes are clearly on the decline in France. However, he became a very vocal figure (in Spain) after October last year and the whole secessionist push in Catalonia," Barroso said.

Ciudadanos (Citizens Party) meanwhile, didn't have anyone "with enough name recognition" to put on the ballot but Valls fits the bill, according to Barroso.

So for the past few weeks, Valls has been busy polishing his public image in Catalonia, the north eastern Spanish region where Barcelona is located, through several public speaking engagements. He has also surrounded himself with a team of local political operatives and met with the region's businessmen.

On social media, many of his posts are now written in Catalan, the local language, or in Spanish. They also help to paint the picture of a deep attachment to the city where he was born in 1962 but where he has seldom lived.

Although he has spoken convincingly on local issues ranging from mass tourism to housing and even said he would push for Barcelona to become the country's joint-capital with Madrid, little is known about what his campaign could be based upon.

"Clearly, one of his policies will be going against independence and presenting himself as a cosmopolitan candidate — who is French but also Spanish-born — and making Barcelona a global city," Barroso ventured, explaining that many in the city have said the independence movement has hurt the interests of Barcelona.

Still, some, including Luis Bassat, a powerful figure in advertising, have praised the bi-national politician.

"Manuel Valls has an extraordinary political experience in France, knows Europe really well and speaks Catalan and Spanish," the businessman said.

The election, scheduled for May 2019, is likely to be very fragmented with several well-known figures running against Valls, including current mayor Ada Colau.

"Colau is a very powerful political force. She is recognised by everybody so it's an uphill race, so to speak, for him," Barroso said.

"An additional element of uncertainty is that we have never had a politician from abroad, who has had a political career in another country, come back and run for a major city. There is no precedent.

"This election is also going to be especially difficult to predict because it's the first one since the the events of last year in Catalonia," Barroso added.

Criticisms

Valls's aspirations south of the border have also angered some in the French political landscape. Chief among their criticisms is the fact that he is an MP, a job for which he continues to draw a salary despite rarely visiting the National Assembly.

According to Nosdeputés.fr, Valls has attended parliament fewer than 10 times since May.

Some parliamentarians have called for him to resign but Valls has not yet signalled what his intentions are — no law in France seemingly exists on politicians exercising in another country.