Manuel Valls: “With Vox you end up getting your hands dirty, and to some extent, your soul”

After breaking with Ciudadanos, the former French prime minister speaks to EL PAÍS about why he believes the center-right party has betrayed its liberal and progressive values

Manuel Valls in Barcelona.
Manuel Valls in Barcelona.Albert García

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls admits he is upset that the center-right party Ciudadanos (Citizens) has broken the coalition that was formed nine months ago to support Valls’ bid for Barcelona mayor. On Monday, Ciudadanos announced that its 13-member executive committee had decided to break with the Barcelona-born politician for helping Ada Colau, of the leftist Barcelona en Comú party (the regional branch of Podemos), get reelected as the mayor of Barcelona – a decision Valls made to stop City Hall falling into the hands of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

But the tensions run deeper. Valls has been a vocal critic against making deals with the far-right party Vox, whose support Ciudadanos and the right-wing Popular Party (PP) need if they are to take power in several municipal and regional governments – including the Madrid region.

We have to fight nationalism in all its forms. Nationalism is Vox, it is the separatist drive

The first moment of tension arose over a protest in Madrid’s central Colón square in February called by the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox to demand the resignation of acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE). Valls’ team had said he would not attend the event, but a few hours later, facing pressure from Ciudadanos, he confirmed he would be present to defend the Spanish Constitution – not to push for Sánchez’s resignation. Valls also refused to take the stage to have his photo taken alongside members of the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox.

Ciudadanos and the Popular Party are already governing in the southern region of Andalusia thanks to the votes of Vox, and last Saturday, they also took control of Madrid City Hall with support from the far-right group.

Valls says he will remain as a councilor for Barcelona, and has asked for time to consider new projects. Ciudadanos has three councilors in Barcelona City Hall, while Valls’ group of independents, Barcelona pel Canvi-Ciutadanshas, also has three.

In this interview with EL PAÍS, Valls explains why he believes Ciudadanos is betraying its liberal and progressive core values.

Ciudadanos are showing that their strategy is, the worse things are, the better

Question. Has Ciudadanos changed that much since you joined forces with the party less than a year ago?

Answer. I warned at the beginning of October that we had to consider a “cordon sanitaire” with Vox. I remember that [Ciudadanos leader] Albert Rivera said he didn’t agree, only to set one out against the PSOE a few months later. If they had listened to me, modestly, things would have been different. After the Andalusian regional election, if the PSOE had abstained, there would not hot have been the need for an indirect deal with Vox. The responsibilities are shared, but there is a shift. You say you are liberal, progressive and pro-Europe, and you end up making a deal, hiding behind the PP, with an illiberal and anti-Europe party. This shift, made to beat the PP to become the leader of the right, is the wrong strategy. [...] It has not worked, just as the strategy to beat the PP has not worked.

Q. Did you tell Ciudadanos that you would offer Ada Colau your votes without any conditions at her investiture ceremony?

A. I did not have to negotiate such an important decision with Ciudadanos, I accept that. Is that the cause of the split? The way of doing politics, of acting? No, it is due to other reasons. They are showing that the strategy of the worse things are, the better, is Ciudadanos’ strategy.

Q. Do you believe Ciudadanos wanted Ernest Maragall from the ERC to become mayor so the situation in Catalonia would worsen to the benefit of the party?

A. If we had followed Ciudadanos’ position, Maragall would be mayor today. They prefer a separatist mayor in order to show what the pro-independence drive is about. But what do the people of Barcelona think? And to leave the Spanish government in the hands of [Basque nationalist group] EH Bildu and the ERC to show [acting Socialist Prime Minister] Pedro Sánchez’s betrayal. A party that says it is liberal and progressive has a responsibility.

It’s better to lose power and have the option of returning to power tomorrow because your position will be clear, ethical and responsible

Q. If you believe Ciudadanos is using your decision to support Colau just as an excuse to break with you, what is the real reason? Is it about Vox?

A. Yes, of course. It’s the most important reason. We have to fight nationalism in all its forms. Nationalism is Vox, it is the separatist drive: we cannot leave a region such as Navarre in the hands of [nationalist, pro-Basque independence party] EH Bildu. Wanting to make direct or indirect deals with Vox is very serious in terms of principles, ethics, a pro-European vision, of what a center, progressive and pro-European party has to be.

Q. By making deals with Vox, are the PP and Ciudadanos normalizing the far right?

A. Ciudadanos’ position is to not directly do deals with Vox, to not accept the party in government. This means they are uncomfortable with Vox. The problem is when you enter this circle, in the process of direct or indirect discussion, you end up getting your hands dirty, and to some extent, your soul, if that means something in political life. In the end, to push forward the budget in Andalusia, you have to sign a document.

Q. And that comes with conditions.

A. It’s better to lose power, to not exercise it, and have the option of returning to power tomorrow because your position will be clear, ethical and responsible. Ciudadanos is rushing to achieve positions of power and to get rid of others.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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