PARIS (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday (July 6) replaced his embattled interior minister in a cabinet reshuffle days after changing his prime minister, as he seeks to stake out a "new path" for France through its worst economic crisis since World War II.
After a weekend of painstaking consultations with new premier Jean Castex, Macron dropped Christophe Castaner as interior minister and replaced him with budget minister Gerald Darmanin, who is the subject of a rape investigation.
Castaner, appointed in 2018, had to manage a crisis when police came under increasing criticism for alleged heavy-handedness and racism.
However, the reshuffle stopped short of radical change, with Macron keeping on Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Defence Minister Florence Parly. Health Minister Olivier Veran, who led the country's battle against the coronavirus outbreak which has claimed nearly 30,000 lives, is also staying on.
But Macron axed the only black person in his cabinet, government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye, who caused a recent controversy by suggesting a long-standing ban on racial population data in France should be overturned.
After a dismal local election showing for his centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party, Macron replaced his popular prime minister Edouard Philippe with relative unknown Castex, a bureaucrat and small-town mayor.
Analysts said the move reflected a desire by Macron to tighten his grip on executive power after reports of policy disagreements with Philippe - who fared far better than the president in opinion polls.
Macron is looking ahead to the 2022 presidential election, in which he is likely to be challenged by far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Under Le Maire, France has invested billions of taxpayers' money in a massive effort to relaunch an economy battered into a historic recession by the coronavirus crisis and resultant lockdown.
Macron wrote on Twitter on Sunday that a "new path" was needed, listing the new government's priorities as "reviving the economy, continuing an overhaul of our social protection and the environment, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty".
Castaner had made few friends in one of the toughest portfolios in the French government. On his watch, police were accused of injuring dozens of people in clamping down on months of anti-government yellow vest protests and then anti-pension reform strikes, using explosive stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators.
Accusations of racism have also been levelled against members of the police, with massive protests over the death in custody of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black man. Further uproar followed when delivery driver Cedric Chouviat died after officers pinned him to the ground as he repeatedly shouted "I'm suffocating".
Castaner initially announced the chokehold method of restraining suspects would be abandoned but recanted after police staged their own protests claiming the government had abandoned them. His replacement, Darmanin, is accused by a woman of having raped her after she sought his help in having a criminal record expunged.
Last month, appeals judges in Paris ordered the reopening of an investigation into the claims that date from 2009. Darmanin has served as budget minister since the Macron presidency started in May 2017 and is regarded as a loyal ally of the president.
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the reshuffle, star criminal lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti, famous for his record in winning acquittals for his clients, was named minister of justice.
'NOT AN OPTION'
For the environment ministry, Macron appointed Barbara Pompili, a former secretary of state for biodiversity and LREM representative in the northern Somme department, to replace Elisabeth Borne.
The green EELV party, of which Pompili was a member before joining the LREM, made huge gains in local elections and said it would not join the new government if asked, accusing Macron of paying lip service to environmental issues.
Castex, not specifically known for a green agenda, has insisted since his appointment that a healthy environment "is not an option but an obligation".
Philippe, meanwhile, has returned to the relative peace of his old job as mayor of the Normandy port of Le Havre. Opinion is divided over whether he will fade into the background or one day return to challenge Macron.