Some interior ministers in recent decades have been equally close to the President politically. Others – Nicolas Sarkozy under President Jacques Chirac, Manuel Valls under President François Hollande – have run parallel governments with independent aims and personal ambitions.
Interior ministers, equivalent to Home Secretaries in Britain, supervise the police and other internal security services. They are the watch-dogs of the French state.
Some bark at their masters’ command. Others bark because they want to be heard (in the hope of eventually becoming the master themselves).
Which kind of dog is Gérald Darmanin, 38, the present inhabitant of the 18th century Hotel de Beauvau, which houses the interior ministry? He has only been in the job for four months. It is too early to be sure.
Some of his comments in recent weeks are clearly intended to further his long-haul chances of becoming leader of the currently leaderless French centre-right. He was one of the centre-right politicians who defected to Macron’s successful centrist cause after the 2017 presidential elections.
Darmanin suggested last month that ethnic food sections in supermarkets were a scandal and undermined the universal, secular values of the French Republic. He later told a regional newspaper – incorrectly it now appears – that a draft law on secularism due next month would include jail sentences for people who refuse treatment by female doctors.
Is Gérald Darmanin, left, acting as Emmanuel Macron's attack dog or forging his own political career? Photo: AFP
He also supports legislative moves – to be discussed in the National Assembly today – which would ban “malicious” publication of “images of the police”. The law would not, as some have suggested, ban all pictures of police on duty. But who is to judge which pictures are “malicious”?
If it passes, the new law will embolden police officers who impede press coverage of demonstrations. It will embolden the minority of police who use excessive violence against protesters.
Darmanin was in charge of the French state’s reaction to the beheading of the history teacher, Samuel Paty last month. Much of what he did was justified and presumably had the backing of President Macron and the Prime Minister, Jean Castex.
Even the closure of the large mosque in Pantin, north of Paris, criticised by some in the Muslim world and the US media, was welcomed by many local worshippers. They had long complained that the mosque had been hijacked by an imam with extremist views.
After 30 serious Islamist attacks in eight years and 249 deaths, France has a right to defend its itself against Islamist extremism. The President’s draft law to combat “separatism” – now renamed the law to “strengthen secularism” – will be published on December 9th.
The broad outlines have been approved by moderate French Muslim leaders. The declared intention is to help the vast majority of law-abiding French Muslims to worship free from the influence of extremist, violent and foreign-sponsored perversions of their religion.
Darmanin has blurred that message.
Macron’s attempts to calm the often-misplaced foreign criticism of France’s reaction to the terrorist attacks have been undermined by some of his interior minister’s sillier and more attention-seeking remarks.
France has been the subject of furious protests in countries including Iran. Photo: AFP
The interior minister said last month that he was “always shocked to find ‘community’ foods when I walk into a supermarket…I’ve no problem with separate Kosher or Halal shops but…to see the big supermarket chains try to make money out of separate community feeling, I find that shocking.”
This is pushing France’s commitment to an indivisible, secular Republic into the realms of right-wing fantasy. One wonders if Darmanin’s imagined threats to French identity include PG Tips tea and digestive biscuits, found in supermarkets in parts of Normandy or the south west.
These comments – plus those that he made about imprisoning patients who refuse female doctors – are seized upon by foreign journalists and politicians who accuse the French government of conducting a campaign of harassment against ALL Muslims, not just Islamist extremists.
The interior minister can scarcely be accused of being a racist. The clue is in his middle name – Moussa. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Moussa Ouakid, who was born in Algeria in 1907 and fought in the Free French forces in 1944.
On his father’s side Darmanin is partly Maltese and Armenian – scarcely the background of a nativist, hard right-winger.
He seems to have fallen victim to the temptation which often befalls French interior ministers and British Home Secretaries – to act the strong man (or woman) to please conservative, even hard-right, voters.
Sarkozy and Valls and Theresa May have all passed that way. They became respectively President and Prime Ministers and then imploded.
Darmanin has just turned 38 (but he is only four years younger than Macron). He doubtless fancies his chance of emerging as a centre-right or centrist leader some time in the next decade.
The real issue is why, and for how long, he will be allowed to get away with running his own mini-government. Macron is the President. Castex is the Prime Minister.
Are they allowing Darmanin to play the tough man to appeal to right wing and older voters in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election? If so, it is a dangerous game.