Valls (center) with Hollande (right)
It has been a bruising year for France's Socialists. The economy is at a standstill; joblessness is rising. In December President François Hollande's popularity rating dropped to a new low of 35%. That of his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, fell further still. The new team is far below the ratings of the last left-wing government, under Lionel Jospin a decade ago. Yet amid the disillusion, one Socialist defies the trend: Manuel Valls, the interior minister.

In less than a year the 50-year-old Mr Valls has been transformed from a pesky, upstart outsider into France's most popular politician. The son of a Catalan artist who obtained French nationality as a 20-year-old, Mr Valls was snubbed at the Socialists' 2011 presidential primary. His outspoken views, echoing Tony Blair, who modernised Britain's left, were deemed risqué. Instead of peddling false dreams, he argued that politicians should tell the truth: thanks to its huge public debt, France faced an "effort equivalent to that after the second world war", and not all problems could be resolved by spending more. For his pains, he got less than 6% of the vote. Yet today Mr Valls tops the polls with a handsome 61% rating, seven points up on a month ago. He is increasingly talked of as a possible prime minister. To the irritation of some colleagues, the Nouvel Observateur, a left-leaning magazine, put him on its cover under the title "The vice-president".

Mr Valls's ascent is partly thanks to a keen eye for what looks good in the media, and a matching energy to supply it. A former mayor of Evry, a multicultural suburb of Paris which has seen its share of riots and gang warfare, he prepared for the job for years. Having run Mr Hollande's campaign communications, Mr Valls knows the political value of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with policemen, firemen and ordinary folk. After gangland murders in Marseille, and to much local astonishment, he visited the city's high-crime northern districts by metro.

Comment: Here's what Valls had to say about the demographics of his constituency:

Yet his rise also reflects a big shift on the left. In many areas Mr Valls has been as tough as his right-wing predecessors. He has not hesitated to dismantle illegal Roma camps, expel an imam for preaching anti-Semitism, tighten counter-terrorism laws to clamp down on jihadis or put more police on the streets. When Nicolas Sarkozy did these things, the Socialists cried foul. Now in power, they seem quite happy with their tough-cop minister.

Mr Valls argues that this is because, unlike Mr Sarkozy, he is not seeking to be divisive, as he is not chasing far-right National Front voters. Over the years, he says, the left has come to accept a harder line on security policy. It was Ségolène Royal, the party's defeated 2007 presidential candidate, who pinched Mr Blair's slogan, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Mr Valls even wrote a book arguing that, far from being illiberal, a hard stance on order and authority is the best guarantor of individual freedom.

The photo that may have sent Valls over the edge in his pursuit of French comedian Dieudonne.
Mr Valls has made his name with unorthodox thinking that annoys party grandees. He once got into trouble for suggesting that the word "Socialist" should be dropped from the party's name. He has criticised the 35-hour week. He talks of "apartheid" in France, referring to ethnic ghettos in the banlieues, saying it shows the failings of the integrationist model. On security, he still clashes with others in government, notably the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who wants more non-custodial sentences. But overall the left seems to have shifted to the right.

The same cannot be said of economic policy. Mr Hollande campaigned on a promise to tax the rich at 75%, stop industrial closures and face down the "world of finance". Today, the government seems unable to decide whether it is keeping to that line or has woken up to reality. With one hand, it lowers business payroll taxes to boost competitiveness. With the other, it threatens (before backing down) to nationalise part of a steelworks, and has stuck to higher taxes (see box on next page). All this looks decidedly confused.

"This process of metamorphosis should have been done during the ten years in opposition," argues Mr Valls. "The challenge is that we are now adapting our software in office." He is too loyal to criticise the government's blundering over the steelworks, but hints at his disapproval by saying, "We should create hope, but not false hopes." Having failed to settle their economic differences before the election, the Socialists are confronting difficult choices in hard times, with neither an electoral mandate nor a party consensus for a more business-friendly approach.

Mr Valls's star power has not won him only friends. His base within the party is slight, and some resent the way in which he has orchestrated a closeness to Mr Hollande. One critic says he is "not a team player". Others note that he is not always as tough as he makes out: he is easing criteria for regularising illegal immigrants. His single-minded ambition, his outsider background - with a foreign-born father who did not attend France's elite schools - and an energetic readiness to take on received wisdom: there are echoes here of a younger Mr Sarkozy, who also made his name as an action-man interior minister. Mr Valls bristles at the comparison, but then concedes that "If you mean that he was energetic, and shook up old habits, and grabbed hold of security dossiers, then I'm not bothered."