October 2, 2018 / 3:32 PM / a year ago

French interior minister resigns in face-off with Macron

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Emmanuel Macron was forced to accept his interior minister’s resignation on Tuesday after early ally Gerard Collomb insisted he wanted to step down despite the president having rejected his resignation less than 24 hours earlier.

Gerard Collomb, outgoing French Interior Minister, shakes hands with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, appointed interim Interior Minister, during a handover ceremony in Paris, France, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Collomb, 71, a former Socialist party stalwart who became one of Macron’s earliest and most eager backers, had earlier told the conservative Le Figaro newspaper he wanted to resign so he could run for election as mayor of his hometown Lyon.

“The French people and the people of Lyon need clarity, so I maintain my offer to resign,” Collomb responded when asked whether he would stay on as interior minister after Macron initially turned down his resignation on Monday.

“Considering the rumours and the pressure, I don’t want the fact I will be a candidate somewhere tomorrow to affect the way forward for the interior ministry,” he said.

Late on Tuesday, Macron’s office said the president had accepted Collomb’s resignation and that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who reportedly cancelled a trip to South Africa, would assume his responsibilities until a replacement was found.

Collomb’s comments were seen by critics as an unprecedented challenge to Macron’s authority, coming just weeks after the 40-year-old centrist was forced to replace his popular environment minister and the sports minister.

Two weeks ago, Collomb announced plans via a newspaper interview to quit the government and run for mayor of Lyon in 2020, returning to a position he has previously held.

He initially indicated that he would resign after European elections in May 2019. But opposition rivals said the comments undermined his legitimacy as the head of one of the most sensitive portfolios in France, where Islamist militants have killed hundreds of people since 2012.

Collomb had in recent weeks been critical of Macron, speaking of a “lack of humility” in the president’s administration and dismissing expressions often used by Macron, such as “start-up nation,” as out of touch with common folk.

“Very few of us can still talk to (Macron),” Collomb was quoted by French media as telling a small group of journalists over lunch last month. “Soon he won’t put up with me anymore. But if we all bow down before him, he’ll end up isolated.”

Only a week ago, presidential advisers said Macron had made clear to Collomb that the timing of his resignation would be decided by the president himself, who is regarded as running a tight ship with heavy demands on time and loyalty.

Macron’s approval ratings have plunged to about 30 percent, from around 60 percent shortly after he was elected in May 2017. Critics have said that his policies favour the rich and his personal manner is often described as aloof and arrogant.

Macron has said that he is determined to do whatever it takes to overhaul the French economy and introduce other social reforms to put the country on a stronger path.

Reporting by Michel Rose Editing by Luke Baker, Jon Boyle, Toni Reinhold

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