September 18, 2018 / 5:46 AM / a month ago

Macron's government in flux as key ally plans to quit post

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s interior minister, one of President Emmanuel Macron’s closest allies, has announced plans to quit the government and run for election as mayor of Lyon in 2020, adding to doubts and instability around the young leader’s administration.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron sits next to Interior Minister Gerard Collomb as he leads the last cabinet meeting before the government goes on holidays at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France August 3, 2018. Michel Euler/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Gerard Collomb’s announcement in an interview in L’Express magazine follows the abrupt resignations of a popular environment minister, who questioned Macron’s commitment to the reduction of nuclear power, and the sports minister.

A high-profile member of Macron’s party, Republique En Marche, also quit over the weekend.

Macron’s approval rating has plunged to about 30 percent, from around 60 percent shortly after he was elected in May 2017, with opinion polls showing he is regarded as aloof and unsympathetic toward people’s everyday hardships.

Collomb, who recently acknowledged what he called a “lack of humility” in Macron’s administration, suggested he could stand down as soon as the middle of next year.

“I won’t be interior minister up to the last minute,” he told the weekly magazine. “Ministers who want to run in the 2020 municipal elections should in my view leave the government after the European (parliament) elections,” he said.

The European parliament vote takes place in May 2019.

FILE PHOTO: French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

“KETCHUP MOMENT”

Macron’s office played down news of Collomb’s exit plan. One official there told reporters everyone knew how much Collomb remained a fan of Lyon, where he served as mayor from 2001 until 2017, adding: “The president will reorganize the team when he deems it necessary.”

Macron’s political opponents seized on the case. Eric Ciotti of The Republicans said that, on the heels of ex-environment minister Nicolas Hulot, it was the second time in weeks that a minister had abruptly announced exit plans in the media.

“It’s a bit like they’re fleeing the Titanic,” Ciotti told public service radio station France Inter, adding that it was untenable for Collomb to combine preparations for the Lyon election and full-time duties as interior minister in a country under threat of further Islamist militant attacks.

Commenting on the political climate, Collomb, who left the post of Lyon mayor to team up with Macron, said big election victories tended to generate an atmosphere where leadership appeared to lose touch with voters’ grievances.

“They are times when the atmosphere is rarified, where there is less listening (to voters),” said the 71-year-old, likening the present period to one he experienced when the left swept to power under Francois Mitterrand in 1981.

Critics of the pro-business president Macron accuse him of favoring the wealthy in his drive to inject new life into the French economy. He scrapped a wealth tax and reduced corporation tax while cutting housing allowances for the poor and raising taxes on pensions.

Macron has promised that his reforms will create growth and new jobs, but there is growing impatience among voters as unemployment hovers stubbornly around 9 percent and the economy expands more slowly than expected.

Collomb said Macron was stuck in a “ketchup moment”: “You thump the bottom of the bottle and, for a time, nothing happens. Then comes a point when the whole lot comes out.”

Additional reporting by Catherine Lagrange andSimon Carraud; Editing by Richard Lough/Geert de Clercq/Richard Balmforth

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