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BARCELONA, Spain – Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls launched a bid on Tuesday to become Barcelona's mayor in an election next year with the aim to "rescue" the Catalan capital from "deterioration."
The 56-year-old Valls, who was born in Barcelona but was raised in France and made a career in local and national politics there, said he would resign as a French lawmaker in order to focus on his bid in the neighboring country.
His jump to Spanish politics raises the stakes for the May election as a battleground between those who want the wealthy northeastern Catalan region to either break away or remain part of Spain.
After months of negotiations with the anti-secession Ciutadans (Citizens) party, Valls finally announced on Tuesday that he was choosing to lead an independent ticket. His bid has the backing of the Spanish center-right party led by Albert Rivera but Valls said that he seeks wider support.
"Barcelona should be an antidote against populism," Valls said, adding that the city "has to be a meeting point and a space of cohabitation."
But rather than focusing on the territorial dispute, Valls chose to emphasize plans to bolster security and fight inequality in the city of 1.6 million, while promising efforts to boost the local economy and raise the international profile of the "Barcelona brand."
The city, he said switching between Catalan and Spanish at a packed auditorium, "is deteriorating and none of us should be indifferent."
The comment was an attack on far-left incumbent Ada Colau. The former anti-eviction activist wants to earn re-election but is facing mounting criticism for her handling of street vendors and the prevalence of drug trafficking in the city center.
Valls has been a household name in French politics for more than a decade. He served as the mayor of Evry, a town on the outskirts of Paris, before becoming interior minister in 2012 and then prime minister between 2014 and 2016, when Francois Hollande was the country's president.
After failing in his bid to become a presidential candidate last year, Valls left the Socialist party and joined Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move centrist party.
On Tuesday, Valls announced that he would leave his seat in France's National Assembly.
French political opponents, on the left and right, had criticized him in recent weeks for holding onto his lawmaker's salary while launching a political career abroad.