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December 05, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced his candidacy Monday for next year’s presidential election, saying he will step down immediately from his current job to focus on his bid. Valls hopes to unite the Socialists under his banner and give the left a chance to stay at the Elysee Palace — the most ambitious challenge of his political life after his boss, the highly unpopular President Francois Hollande, decided not to run for a second term last week.

Valls will face other contenders in the Socialist primary next month ahead of France’s two-part presidential election in April and May. “I want to give everything for France,” the 54-year-old said in a speech in the Paris suburb of Evry, adding he would quit his job Tuesday.

Valls portrayed himself as a “lucid” politician, experienced enough to face authoritarian leaders in China, Russia, Turkey and “the America of Donald Trump.” “I want an independent France,” he insisted.

Valls said he wants to defeat the far-right, led by National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and the conservative candidate Francois Fillon — both of whom have already been chosen to represent their parties.

A center-leaning Socialist who backs a tough line on security and immigration, Valls is somewhat more popular than his boss, but their party is in deep disarray over the government’s handling of the economy.

As Hollande’s prime minister since 2014, Valls has promoted pro-business policies and implemented plans to cut over 40 million euros in government spending and to cut taxes. This strategy has prompted rebellion from some Socialists who think he is not left-leaning enough.

Former Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and former Education Minister Benoit Hamon, among those Socialist rebels, have both announced their candidacies for the primary, alongside other lower-profile candidates.

Valls backed pro-European policies and pushed for reforms loosening France’s labor rules — the latter move prompting violent protests for months. He was forced to use a special power to pass the laws without a vote at parliament, an act that reinforced criticism from the left.

At critical times, Valls has overcome divisions, embodying France’s national unity in a speech at parliament following deadly attacks in January 2015 by Islamic extremists at the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.

“France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism. France is not at war with a religion. France is not at war with Islam and Muslims,” he said, prompting unanimous applause. Still, his nervous, authoritarian style has drawn comparisons with former conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Like Sarkozy, Valls is known for his frank, sometimes shocking words — and he cherishes an image of “top cop” inherited from his time as Interior Minister from 2012 to 2014.

Valls at the time promoted policies to “assimilate” immigrants with the French population and favor their naturalization under strict rules. He expelled Roma residents from the country, saying their lifestyle is “in confrontation” with that of the French and they should return to Romania or Bulgaria.

As a prime minister, he denounced a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” that affects France’s troubled housing projects — admittedly a powerful term aimed at shaking up public opinion in favor of more inclusion.

Last summer, Valls supported local bans on burkinis on French beaches. He wrote on his Facebook page that denouncing the swimsuit, worn by a small minority of Muslim women, “in no way puts into question individual freedom” and is really about denouncing “fatal, retrograde Islamism.”

Valls was born in Barcelona in 1962 and became naturalized as French 20 years later. He has four children from a first marriage that ended in divorce, and since 2010 has been married to his second wife, the violinist Anne Gravoin.

His first bid for the presidency failed in 2011, when he got less than six percent of the votes at the Socialist primary. He then joined Hollande’s successful presidential campaign in 2012.

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