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Why France’s new Interior Minister faces protests everywhere he goes

Gerald Darmanin has faced protests at all of his public appearances to date as France's interior minister as the country questions whether someone under investigation for rape allegations can and should be its "top cop."

Why France's new Interior Minister faces protests everywhere he goes
The newly apointed interior minister Gerald Darmanin. Photo: AFP

The 37-year-old's appointment on July 6th drew immediate outrage that has showed no signs of abating – women's rights campaigners have picketed every one of Darmanin's public appearances to date.

He is accused of raping a woman in 2009 after she sought his help to have a criminal record expunged while he was a legal affairs adviser with the UMP, the ancestor of France's main right-wing party, the Republicans.

Darmanin maintains they had consensual sex.

The case has been thrown out multiple times, but appeals judges in Paris last month ordered a new investigation after the woman approached France's highest court.

The uproar over Darmanin's promotion to a key cabinet position just weeks after that ruling seems to have taken the government and President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party by surprise.

Their defence of Darmanin has focused on the presumption of innocence, even as they appear to have exonerated him despite an ongoing inquiry.

Macron explained on French television that he had a “relationship of trust, man-to-man” with Darmanin, a phrase many criticised for being tone deaf.

A member of Macron's team defended the appointment by telling AFP the criminal case was evolving “in the right direction” and “presented no obstacle” to Darmanin's elevation.

Darmanin himself has complained of a “manhunt” and told a regional newspaper this week it was hard for a falsely accused person to explain to their parents “what happened because, it's true, I lived a young man's life.”

The woman also accuses Darmanin of sexual harassment and abuse of power, while he has filed a libel complaint against her in return.

Even if he is ultimately cleared, critics say the mere hint of impropriety makes Darmanin unsuitable for the interior ministry job, especially as Macron had promised a “moralisation of public life” on his watch.

“It is not certain that we are properly evaluating the damage that this case is causing,” Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, an analyst at the Sciences Po university in Paris, said of the political support being drummed up for Darmanin at a time of widespread mistrust in government.

A cabinet minister who asked for anonymity told AFP: “What is annoying is that this issue will ripple out.”

In a press interview, Darmanin said he was “completely at ease,” but on Tuesday his lawyers warned that he reserved the right to sue over “any defamatory remarks that stain his honour and esteem.”

Even within his own ministry, Darmanin's appointment has raised eyebrows – if questioned in the probe, it would be by police officers of whom he is now the boss.

And his fellow cabinet members are finding themselves in difficult positions.

Elisabeth Moreno, the new minister for gender equality, said after a “woman-to-man” conversation with Darmanin that he deserved the benefit of the doubt, “but if he is found guilty, we will talk again.”

One minister told AFP that “Legally speaking, I think the case falters. But then follows the moral question: Has Darmanin always behaved well towards women?”

The allegations are not the first against Darmanin – a woman accused him of using his position as mayor of the northern city of Tourcoing to seek sexual favours from 2014 to 2017, though prosecutors dismissed the case.

Women's rights activists including Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi wrote in Le Monde that Macron's cabinet shuffle which promoted Darmanin marked an “anti-feminist political shift.”

Women's groups gathering under slogans such as: “The culture of rape on the move” – a play on Macron's Republic on the Move party – have staged protests in Paris and the rest of France, even in Brussels, since Darmanin's appointment.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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