Catalonia's independence struggle has hit Barcelona's reputation, says Valls

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Former French prime minister Manuel Valls describes himself as an anti-populist candidate. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Manuel Valls has warned that the Catalan independence movement’s “failed” attempts to bring about a sovereign republic have left the region frustrated and divided, hindering efforts to develop Barcelona as “a great European capital”.

The former French prime minister, who is hoping to become Barcelona’s mayor in next year’s municipal elections, said the push for independence had caused deep divisions and left Catalonia looking inwards rather than outwards.

“What has changed most in the past year is that the process to bring about independence has failed,” he said. “First, because half the Catalans and more than half the people in Barcelona don’t want it, second the rest of Spain doesn’t either and nor does Europe. This has led to a lot of frustration.”

Valls said the time had come to heal the wounds and that he was ideally placed to help.

“The problem is now we are divided,” he said. “I want to see respect and moderation. As the most Catalan Frenchman and the most French of the Catalans, plus the fact that I speak Catalan, I believe I can convince people that this is what they want too.”

Valls – who was born in Barcelona when his Catalan father and Swiss mother were there on holiday – said that the people of the Catalan capital needed to ask themselves what kind of city they wanted: “A city that looks to Europe or a city that corrals itself within its own identity, which is the secessionists’ message?

“We need a mayor who says that Barcelona isn’t the capital of the Catalan republic but is a great European capital.”

A third of Barcelona residents were not born in Spain and about a third of them are EU citizens. Barred from voting for the Catalan or Spanish governments, the city election is the one occasion when these residents can make their voice heard, something Valls is well aware of.

The 56-year-old has been accused of being the candidate of the elite and seeking to run a city in which he has never lived. Others have questioned how his vociferous opposition to Catalan independence will go down with those who favour a break with Spain.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I was born here and as a child I spent many months here but I haven’t been here every day over the past 10 years. But you have to ask, have the people who know the city better than me done a good job of running it?”

Although originally touted as the candidate of the centre-right Citizens party , Valls insists he is his own man, standing as an independent “from the left and with the values of the French republic”.

He is highly critical of Ada Colau, the incumbent mayor, both for her management and what he says is her non-committal stance on independence.

Such equidistancia – a willingness to see both sides – has become a pejorative term in Catalonia’s highly polarised atmosphere.

“I don’t believe in equidistancia,” says Valls. “You’re either for or against independence. I believe there is a political space for someone like me, who is clearly not in favour of independence but who can bring people together [..] with a commitment to constitutional values and principles.”

Although he criticises Colau on law and order issues, such as the upsurge in hard drugs, street crime and, above all, the proliferation of street-hawkers, or manteros, he is short on solutions.

The manteros – so called because they sell their wares from blankets laid out on the pavement – are stateless vendors who are considered a growing problem, mainly because of the space they occupy.

“They’re human beings, they’re victims of human traffickers but this doesn’t mean that the people of Barcelona have to be victims as well,” said Valls. “The public space belongs to everyone. The police need to have clear orders. These people can’t occupy the main tourist areas, where they are persona non grata.”

However, where this has been attempted, the vendors return to the same spots because that’s where the tourists – their principal market – are.

As for the increasingly problematic issue of tourism, Valls claims it is a question of management, not numbers. While his predecessors have at least made a pretence of calling for quality over quantity, he espouses a come-all-ye approach.

“We want them all, people who want to go to the beach, to watch Barça, to have a good time going out dancing or to stag and hen parties,” he said. “But we also need quality tourism.”

In an echo of the image promoted 15 years ago by then mayor, Joan Clos, Valls believes Barcelona should be “a great European and Mediterranean capital; an open and global city”.

Valls is a former socialist, who has since moved to the right. He shrugs off suggestions that he is out of touch, claiming that his outsider status could prove to be an asset.

“The Catalans, such as [former Catalan president] Carles Puigdemont, who said it’s great that France has a Catalan prime minister, are the same ones who now call me an outsider,” Valls said.

“And the same people who say Catalonia has to split from Spain … in order to be a part of Europe don’t want a Catalan who made his career in France. I am an anti-populist candidate, and by populism I mean a political movement that excludes people and seeks enemies.”