Anne-Diandra Louarn, France 24, August 20, 2013
France’s outspoken Interior Minister Manuel Valls is once again at the centre of controversy after calling the country’s immigration policy and its relationship to Islam into question.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has sowed discord at the heart of the Socialist-led French government after making controversial comments about the country’s immigration policy and its large Muslim population.
During a closed-door ministerial meeting on Monday, Valls, who is in charge of French police, suggested that in ten years France’s immigration system would need fundamental reforms to tackle the influx of foreigners, especially from Africa.
In particular, he questioned whether the country would be able to maintain its policy of regrouping family members of immigrants who obtain legal residency.
Later in the meeting, he was quoted as saying it would be up to France to prove that Islam was compatible with democracy.
The comments were leaked to dailies Libération and Le Parisien by other ministers who, while wishing to remain anonymous, admitted feeling “outraged” by what they had heard.
Following the leaks, Valls and other members of the cabinet were forced to react publicly on Tuesday.
Sounding annoyed that his comments had been leaked to the press, Valls told French RMC radio that it was necessary to “rebuild a relationship with Africa, in particular over the issue of immigration.”
But Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine disagreed on France 2 television.
“We must remember that we are working within a legal framework that must be upheld,” she said. “In my view, calling family reunification into question does not help that framework.”
Separately, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici defended Valls over his comments on Islam, saying they were misrepresented.
“Some are saying that [Valls] was questioning if Islam was compatible with our democracy. The opposite is true. He was saying, ‘We will show the world that Islam is compatible with our democracy’.”
Adding fuel to the fire
Whether or not Valls’s words were taken out of context, they have reinforced his image as a Socialist with a right-wing bent.
Some have even nicknamed him “the Nicolas Sarkozy of the left” in reference to the tough-on-immigration former president.
Last weekend, hard left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon claimed Valls had been “contaminated” by far-right, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen, in reference to the minister’s pronouncement that the government should debate banning Muslim veils in universities.
However, the recurring controversial statements appear to be working in Valls’s favour.
“His popularity has grown over the summer because the subjects he has focused on are widely popular among French people,” Jérôme Fourquet, the director of public opinion studies at French pollster Ifop, told FRANCE 24.
With an approval rating hovering over 60%, Valls, who was born in Spain and became a French citizen at age 20, is currently the most popular French minister, according to a recent Ifop study.
The number of immigrants in France has remained relatively stable over the past ten years. Immigrants represented 5.6% of the population in 2003 and 5.8% in 2010, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Insee national demographics institution.
France is also home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at close to five million people, or 8% of the total population.