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Macron running low on seasoned politicians to fill interior minister position

Gerard Collomb hands over his Interior Ministry duties to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, as search for replacement will take days Stephane de Sakutin/AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron finally accepted Gerard Collomb’s resignation as Interior Minister, after initially refusing it the day before. Collomb says he wants to leave so he can run for mayor of the city of Lyon in 2020. But the timing and speed of the departure raises questions about the relationship between the two men. And Macron may find it difficult to replace him.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is currently serving as Interior Minister until a replacement is found, but the void is striking as it is one of the most powerful positions in the French government, overseeing domestic security as well as responses to terrorism and immigration. The interior minister is often called France’s “top cop”.

And Collomb’s departure is striking because he has been one of Macron’s staunchest allies, one of the first politicians to back him for president when he was running under a newly-formed political group.

Collomb, 71, was heavyweight in the Socialist party, and served as mayor of Lyon, France’s second largest city, for 16 years until Macron tapped him to become interior minister.

Political analyst Philippe Marlière, of University College London, says Collomb’s wanting to run for mayor again in 2020 does not explain his quick departure.

Collomb wanted out, he says, and it was not about policy: “I don’t think it’s a disagreement about economics or even law and order. I think clearly there’s a sense of a malaise and unease surrounding macron for being too autocratic, not sharing enough, not consulting enough, calling the shots and making decisions on his own.”

This was made clear for Collomb during the scandal surrounding Macron’s personal security aide, Alexandre Benalla, who was filmed beating up protesters at an anti-government demonstration while wearing a police uniform and carrying a gun without a permit.

It emerged that Macron's office knew about the incident but did not fire Benalla until the story was reported in the media. And Collomb was forced to explain the situation to a parliamentary inquiry.

“He was put in a situation of a ‘fait accompli,” says Marlière, explaining that the Benalla issue had to have played a role in Collomb’s resignation. “He had to cover for it, so he probably didn’t like it. His authority probably felt challenged”


Police reacting

Police officer representatives say they are surprised at Collomb’s resignation.

“It was not very elegant, this departure,” Philippe Capon of Unsa Police, one of the unions representing police officers, told RFI. “Other ministers resigned recently and they at least waited until their successor was named, to do a proper transfer of power.”

His concern is to have a successor named quickly to address ongoing issues, including officer concerns about their working conditions.

“Police are drowning under workloads and violence, and there are more and more suicides,” Yves Lefebre, of the police unit of the Force Ouvriere union, told RFI.

He is concerned that a transition to a new interior minister will waste time: a power handover will last until December, and “only then will the issues be addressed, and plans will not be made before the spring”.

Who will be named?

Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux says someone will be named within a few days. But Philippe Marlière warns that finding a replacement will not be easy, because Macron needs a political heavyweight: “It’s a very macho type of job, because French politics being what it is, you need someone who can’t be accused immediately of being lax.”

Collomb was the right person for the job, he says, and there is a shortage of such people. Macron had is at the head of a new political party, with many newcomers.

“Look at his parliamentary group: it’s made up of people who were never elected before, they’re very young and inexperienced,” says Marlière. “That really also reflects on the level of the government.”

After some high-profile departures, and three recent resignations, “all the very well-known figures, in fact, you realise they’re gone.”