Minister’s chaotic departure marks serious crisis for Macron

French president has now lost the three heavyweight ‘ministers of state’ appointed after his election

French president Emmanuel Macron with Gérard Collomb, who has resigned from his role as  interior minister.   Photograph:  Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron with Gérard Collomb, who has resigned from his role as interior minister. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

 

The departure of French interior minister Gérard Collomb is considered the most serious crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, and marks the third time in less than three months that the French leader’s authority has been undermined.

Prime minister Edouard Philippe on Wednesday assumed Mr Collomb’s duties, which include fighting terrorism, until a replacement can be found.

The first two crises were the revelation on July 18th that Mr Macron’s bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, had beaten up demonstrators at a May Day rally. The second was the resignation of environment minister Nicolas Hulot on August 28th. Like Mr Hulot, Mr Collomb violated protocol by resigning in a media interview.

But Mr Collomb’s departure is more damaging because of its chaotic manner, described as “psychodrama”, “theatre of the absurd” and “vaudeville” by French media.

Hulot left on policy grounds, faulting Mr Macron for doing too little for the environment. Mr Collomb has questioned Mr Macron’s character. The fact that Mr Collomb prefers his previous job as mayor of Lyon to being second in rank in Mr Macron’s cabinet shows he has lost all faith in his presidency.

The departure of Mr Collomb and Mr Hulot virtually decapitates Mr Macron’s administration. The president has now lost the three heavyweight “ministers of state” appointed after his election. Francois Bayrou left quickly, over a financial scandal. Mr Hulot ranked third in cabinet, after Mr Collomb and the prime minister.

Mr Macron, aged 40, was tied to Mr Collomb, aged 71, by an almost filial bond. Mr Collomb wept with emotion at Mr Macron’s inauguration. He had ruled Lyon for 16 years and was an influential Socialist who left the party to follow Mr Macron. Mr Collomb’s second wife, Caroline, 31 years his junior, became head of Mr Macron’s En Marche! party in Lyon.

Proud and sensitive

Mr Collomb ruled Lyon like a king and chafed at being under the orders of the much younger president and prime minister. He is a proud and sensitive man who bears grudges. For example, he turned against former prime minister Manuel Valls when he visited Lyon without seeing him.

In November 2017, Le Parisien newspaper reported that Mr Collomb was nicknamed “his very senile highness” in government circles. He suspected the slight came from Mr Philippe’s office, according to Le Monde’s in-depth investigation into the unravelling of the Macron-Collomb bromance.

Mr Collomb angered Mr Philippe by refusing to support the prime minister’s law lowering the speed limit from 90 to 80 km/h on France’s two-lane highways. Mr Macron grew impatient at Mr Collomb’s slowness in reforming the state’s relations with Islam.

In Senate testimony, Mr Collomb blamed the Paris prefecture and the Élysée for the Benalla affair. Mr Macron was furious. He poached Mr Collomb’s speechwriter, while Mr Collomb’s chief of cabinet went to work for Richard Ferrand, another close associate of Mr Macron, when Mr Ferrand became speaker of the National Assembly.

Mr Collomb began criticising Mr Macron’s “lack of humility” in the press last month. He said the president suffered from the Greek sin of hubris, or excessive self-confidence. Then he announced in L’Express magazine that he would leave office after next May’s European elections to campaign for re-election as mayor of Lyon. Brigitte Macron pointedly avoided speaking to Mr Collomb at a ceremony for the victims of terrorism.

‘Speechless spectator’

On September 23rd, Mr Collomb told the Dépêche du Midi newspaper that “provincials, of whom I am one, have a natural tendency to think that Parisians are snubbing them. They don’t understand the new political grammar, or expressions like ‘the start-up nation’”.

Mr Collomb finally offered his resignation to Mr Macron on Monday. The Élysée noted that article 8 of the constitution gives the president the prerogative of hiring and firing cabinet ministers. Mr Macron “renewed his confidence [in Mr Collomb] and asked him to remain fully mobilised…”, a statement said.

But Mr Collomb insisted he was leaving regardless, in an interview with Le Figaro. Mr Macron had no choice but to accept the resignation late on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, the ambience was icy at the brief handover ceremony between Mr Collomb and Mr Philippe.

On Thursday, Mr Macron will commemorate the founding of the 5th Republic at Gen Charles de Gaulle’s tomb at Colombey-les-Deux Églises, and in a speech to the constitutional council. Under de Gaulle’s constitution, the president has immense powers. “Now he has been relegated to the rank of speechless spectator of the whims and personal calculations of those he has appointed,” Le Figaro commented.

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