Macron seeks second wind with cabinet reshuffle

Christophe Castaner is one of the main figures in President Macron's inner circle, having backed him from the early stages of his campaign for the presidency

Paris (AFP) – French President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his cabinet on Tuesday, appointing new interior, agriculture and culture ministers after a weeks-long search for new talent to try to revive his government’s flagging fortunes.

Two weeks after political veteran Gerard Collomb abruptly resigned as interior minister, Macron appointed the ultra-loyal head of his Republic on the Move party, Christophe Castaner, to replace him.

The centrist also dismissed his agriculture and culture ministers, seen as weak links in his cabinet, which is a blend of experts in their field and experienced politicians from the left and right. 

The prime minister, foreign and economy ministers all kept their jobs in the cabinet, in which women have exactly half the positions.

Presenting a “renewed, dynamic team with a second wind”, the presidency said it would continue on the same track of reforms.

Collomb’s departure on October 2 was a blow to Macron and coincided with a slump in the president’s popularity after a summer overshadowed by a scandal involving a close aide, several verbal gaffes and disappointing economic data.

His resignation came hot on the heels of that of popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot in August, creating a sense of disarray in the government.

Macron’s delay in carrying out the reshuffle, caused in part by his difficulty in convincing people to join his team, has added to the sense of a loss in momentum after a fast-paced first year in office, analysts say.

The pro-business 40-year-old is hoping to rebound with his revamped team, without deviating from his cost-cutting agenda.

“Gone is the glitter and glamour of the campaign, we’re wisening up and getting into the political nitty-gritty,” said Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a professor of political communications at Sciences Po university.

– In Macron’s shadow –

Christophe Castaner, a gregarious 52-year-old former Socialist MP, had been widely tipped to replace Collomb, who is returning to his home town of Lyon to serve as mayor. 

A central figure in the president’s inner circle, Castaner, who hails from southern France, was a rebellious youth who played poker with members of the criminal underworld in Marseille before entering politics.

He has little experience of national security issues but on Tuesday vowed to be “at your service, ladies and gentlemen, 24 hours a day.”

He resigned his leadership of Macron’s party to take up the job.

The current head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Laurent Nunez, was named as his deputy at the interior ministry.

Didier Guillaume, a former Socialist, was named agriculture minister, replacing Stephane Travert, while centre-right former Republicans lawmaker Franck Riester took over from publisher Francoise Nyssen in culture.

Macron also appointed a new minister for relations with local government, with Jacqueline Gourault taking over the tricky portfolio at a time of budget cuts that have caused deep discontent among rural mayors.

Macron, a former investment banker, shook up the staid world of French politics in 2016 by founding his own pro-business, pro-EU grassroots party, which he presented as neither of the left nor the right.

Analysts say his ministers have struggled to emerge from the shadow of a president with a top-down, highly centralised style of governing.

He suffered the first major scandal of his presidency in July when footage emerged of one of his most trusted security aides hitting a protestor while apparently posing as a policeman at a May Day rally.

Macron was accused of covering up for Alexandre Benalla, who was fired from his Elysee Palace job after Le Monde newspaper revealed the affair.

Slowing economic growth and a series of public gaffes seen as evidence of arrogance have also served to undermine his popularity.

His polling numbers have slumped to their lowest level since his electoral victory in May 2017, with surveys showing that only around 30 percent of French voters have a positive view of his presidency.

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