Paris – French President Emmanuel Macron was left scrambling to fill another key cabinet post-Wednesday after Interior Minister Gerard Collomb resigned, the third minister to step down in two months.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe took temporary control of the interior ministry while Macron began searching for a replacement for 71-year-old Collomb, who was one of the first politicians to back him for president.
The fate of Collomb, nicknamed “France’s top cop” because his ministry is in charge of security and immigration, has thrown the government into flux.
Macron initially refused his resignation on Monday but on Tuesday night gave into Collomb’s request to be allowed to run again for his former job as mayor of the eastern city of Lyon.
The Liberation newspaper described the back-and-forth as “extraordinary dilly-dallying which seems more like something from a music-hall than government politics.”
Collomb’s departure adds to the woes of France’s centrist leader, who is battling record low approval ratings after 17 months in power.
It comes just weeks after popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot resigned live on the radio without warning Macron, saying he felt “all alone” in the government on green issues.
A stony-faced Philippe vowed at a handover ceremony on Wednesday to “maintain the highest level of security for French people” while in charge of the interior ministry.
Collomb, a political heavyweight, had indicated two weeks ago that he intended to step down next year to run for his old job in Lyon.
But he came under pressure to resign immediately, with critics complaining that his focus had already shifted to the campaign trail.
He has previously compared his relationship with Macron, 31 years his junior, to that of a father and son, and wept during the new president’s inauguration in May 2017.
But their relationship is reported to have soured this summer over a scandal surrounding Macron’s former security aide Alexandre Benalla.
Benalla was caught on camera roughing up protesters at an anti-government demonstration, apparently posing as a policeman.
The affair blew up into a major scandal after it emerged that Macron’s office knew about the incident but kept Benalla on staff, only firing him after Le Monde newspaper broke the story.
Summoned to appear before a parliamentary inquiry, Collomb had pointed the finger of blame at Macron’s office, saying it was up to presidency to report Benalla to prosecutors.
Collomb “did not appreciate being put in the firing line over an affair which he didn’t believe was anything to do with him,” an aide said.
The rift between him and Macron appeared to deepen in recent weeks, with Collomb saying last month that Macron’s government “lacked humility” — echoing the accusations of arrogance often levelled at Macron personally.
Collomb served as Lyon mayor for 16 years until Macron poached him for the interior ministry, and it had long been rumored that he was eyeing a fourth term at the helm of France’s third-biggest city.
He is the third minister to quit Macron’s government since August, following ex-environment minister Hulot and former sports minister Laura Flessel.
The search for a new interior minister — one of the most powerful jobs in France — comes as Macron wrestles with problems on multiple fronts in his second year in office.
The former investment banker came to power at the head of a new centrist party promising to clean up politics and revive France’s sputtering economy.
But his government has been forced to cut its growth forecast to a lacklustre 1.6 percent this year as his pro-business reforms struggle to jumpstart an economic turnaround.
His ratings have tumbled, not helped by a string of comments seen as arrogant and dismissive toward ordinary people.
An Ifop poll on September 23 showed only 29 percent of respondents are satisfied with his performance while a Kantar Sofres poll on September 18 showed only 19 percent felt he was doing a good job.