French Interior Minister Quits, a Fresh Blow to Macron


PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s most senior government ally forced his boss to accept his resignation on Wednesday, a humiliation for the embattled French leader who is already struggling with sinking popularity and weakened authority.

Mr. Macron has had a difficult start to the fall political season, and it became even more so this week. Gérard Collomb, the 71-year-old interior minister whose balding head stood out among Mr. Macron’s more youthful cadre, had announced that he wanted to depart the government weeks ago.

The two men have been increasingly at odds — Mr. Collomb criticized the president’s “lack of humility” in a recent interview. Those differences extended even to which one of them would get to decide the timing of the interior minister’s departure. Mr. Collomb offered his resignation on Monday, but Mr. Macron refused to accept it, finally giving the green light for the departure only on Wednesday, after an unusual public standoff.

Trying to dampen reports that Mr. Collomb’s departure would throw the presidency into further disarray, Benjamin Griveaux, a government spokesman, said, “Nothing that has happened in the past 48 hours is akin to a political crisis.”

But there was little doubt that Mr. Collomb’s return to Lyon, the French city where he was the longtime mayor, is a blow to the president, who has seen a rash of other recent cabinet resignations, though none as serious as this.

Not only did Mr. Collomb run France’s counterterrorism operations, he was also a political veteran, one of the few around the 40-year-old Mr. Macron, who has been much faulted for relying too heavily on tone-deaf technocrats.

In a presidency increasingly seen as isolated and arrogant — a view that has been reflected by Mr. Macron’s precipitous drop in the polls — the plain-spoken Mr. Collomb was, by his own account and that of others, one of the few who spoke truth to power.

The satirical news media in France has had great sport depicting a court of flatterers at the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency.

Mr. Collomb has partly reinforced that rendering — he caused a storm 10 days ago when, while still interior minister, he told the Toulouse-based newspaper La Dépêche du Midi: “There aren’t many of us who can still talk to him.”

“Those who can speak frankly to Macron are the ones who were with him at the beginning,” he said. “And by the way, he’s going to wind up not being able to stand me.” Mr. Collomb went on to warn of the dangers of a coterie stifling the French president. “If everybody prostrates themselves before him, he’ll wind up being isolated, because the Elysée naturally isolates,” he said.

Mr. Macron was certainly not pleased, but he evidently did not want to let go of his cabinet’s elder statesman.

Mr. Collomb was one of Mr. Macron’s earliest supporters, campaigning with him enthusiastically in 2016 when the Parisian political class had dismissed the younger man’s chances. The sight of the veteran mayor of France’s third-largest city at the side of a youthful technocrat lent gravity and authority to Mr. Macron’s unlikely presidential run.

But clouds in their relationship began to gather this summer when Mr. Collomb, politically savvy as always, recognized that the president had committed a serious error in covering for Alexandre Benalla, a presidential security aide who was identified roughing-up demonstrators at a May Day protest.

When the French Parliament began asking tough questions in July about the Benalla affair, Mr. Collomb barely defended his boss.

Responsibility for the aide’s bad behavior, the older man told parliamentarians, lay not with Mr. Benalla but with the presidency. “It was up to them to punish him,” he blandly declared.

With Mr. Macron’s popularity plunging even below the levels experienced by his predecessor, François Hollande, in polls late in the summer — a succession of ill-judged, apparently disdainful comments to citizens had not helped — Mr. Collomb was not shy about offering a diagnosis.

In Paris’s few remaining working-class neighborhoods, the Communist Party had already begun putting up posters of Mr. Macron decked in imperial garb, with the words “Macron, Méprisant de la République,” playing on the similarities between the French words for “contemptuous” — “méprisant” — and “president.”

On Sept. 6, Mr. Collomb did more than complain to a television interviewer about Mr. Macron’s “lack of humility.” A scholar of ancient Greek, like the president, Mr. Collomb twisted the knife.

“In Greek, there is the word ‘hubris’ and it is the curse of the gods,” Mr. Collomb said. “It’s when at a certain point, you become too sure of yourself, you think you will sweep everything before you. There’s the phrase: ‘The gods blind those they want to strike down.’ And so we can’t be into blindness.”

Mr. Collomb had initially said he would leave the government next year to prepare for the 2020 mayoral race in Lyon. But that opened him to criticism from members of the opposition, who said that his lame-duck status would weaken his ability to carry out his duties as interior minister. Amid those reproaches, Mr. Collomb brought forward his resignation.

But among the president’s many nicknames is “master of the hours” — and Mr. Macron clearly wanted to be the one who decided when his interior minister would leave.

Mr. Collomb refused to give up when the president rejected his resignation at the start of the week, however, and he quit again. Finally, on Wednesday, Mr. Macron gave in.

Source : Nytimes