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7 April 2023

Macron’s interior minister signals his authoritarian shift

As the French president endures weekly protests, Gérald Darmanin has emerged as his most prominent law and order hard-liner.

By Ido Vock

PARIS – When Gérald Darmanin, France’s unapologetically right-wing interior minister, told an interviewer from the Journal du Dimanche in March that he refuses “to surrender to the far-left’s intellectual terrorism”, it was the culmination of weeks of deliberate baiting of Emmanuel Macron’s critics on the left.

The term “intellectual terrorism” was popularised by Jean Sévillia, a nationalist essayist who in recent years has grown closer to the hard-right pundit and former presidential candidate Éric Zemmour. The expression has since been adopted by many figures across the right-wing spectrum of French politics, from the convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen to the former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Darmanin’s use of the expression was no accident. With protests against Macron’s government taking place on a weekly basis, the interior minister has emerged as the government’s most prominent defender of a hard-line law-and-order approach. Demonstrations against unpopular pension reform, forced through parliament on 16 March, as well as environmental protests, have frequently been met by excessive police brutality. Darmanin’s defence of the police’s conduct has never wavered – and nor has his taunting of demonstrators. 

Darmanin is not averse to using some of the hard right’s favourite tropes in public addresses and interviews with the press. His willingness to do so has become emblematic of Macron’s tilt to the right. Many in Paris speculate that Darmanin has his eye on replacing Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s embattled prime minister. He may even be aiming for the top job himself.

[See also: Chaos erupts over Emmanuel Macron’s retirement reforms]

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Gérald Moussa Darmanin was born in 1982 in the north of France, and is of Algerian and Maltese-Armenian descent. His political career began as a student when he worked for several right-wing figures. From 2004 he was employed as a parliamentary assistant to Christian Vanneste, an MP for the UMP party. Vanneste is notable for having supported a law to recognise the “positive role” of French colonialism in school curriculums.

In 2012, Darmanin beat Vanneste – by then expelled from his party – as a representative in parliament for the UMP. As an MP, he was a member of a hard-right party caucus that supported a tougher line on immigration and identity issues. The faction, named the Popular Right, is today affiliated with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

During the 2017 presidential campaign, Darmanin viciously criticised the then-candidate Macron, whom he accused of “bourgeois bohemian populism”. Macron was a “pure product of the system… who, far from being the remedy for a sick country, will be instead its definitive poison”. Months later, aged 34, he was appointed an economy minister by Macron, despite accusations of rape and sexual harassment against Darmanin, infuriating feminist campaigners. “When a minister is accused of rape, he cannot remain in government,” read one petition calling for Darmanin’s resignation, signed by the activists Madeline Da Silva, Clara Gonzales and Marie Cervetti. (The cases against Darmanin have since been closed by police.)

Darmanin remained in government and was named interior minister in 2020. Soon after his appointment, he used the term ensauvagement in an interview with the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro. The word – which translates as “the state of becoming savage” – was until then mostly a dog whistle used by the far right to describe what was was happening to France. That pattern – of Darmanin amplifying hard-right ideas – would be repeated again and again.

Later that year, he declared that a supermarket with different sections for different cuisines “shocks” him. He sponsored a 2020 bill to counter so-called Islamist separatism, which supposedly seeks to supplant French identity among Muslims with an attachment to Islamist communities instead. In 2022, in a speech defending the principle of immigration in parliament, he cited Jacques Bainville, a historian linked to the monarchist hard right. Perhaps most infamously, in a 2021 TV debate he accused Marine Le Pen of being “a little soft” on Islamism. During a parliamentary hearing on 5 April this year, Darmanin threatened to withdraw funding for the Human Rights League (LDH), an NGO founded in 1898 to defend Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer wrongly accused of treason. The only period in French history when the LDH has been banned was under the Vichy regime during the Second World War.

[See also: France pension reform: Emmanuel Macron has no regrets]

Yet as interior minister, Darmanin has also prohibited white supremacist groups, particularly those linked to violence. In 2021 he banned the extremist anti-migrant Generation Identity. Earlier this month, he asked the messaging app Telegram to ban far-right group chats that, he said, host racism and incite violence. Even as he echoes some far-right rhetoric, he has come down on fringe groups that threaten to undermine the authority of the state. 

If there is a consistent thread in Darmanin’s political career, it is his seemingly limitless ambition, which seems to justify any number of intellectual contortions. “One cannot refuse being appointed a minister at 34,” he is reported to have declared when Macron offered him that ministry post in 2017, despite his trenchant criticism of the president just months earlier. As a minister of the republic, Darmanin was pressed in 2018 by Revue Charles about his past writing for a monarchist magazine. He replied: “I did this to enter politics.”

“Which choir boy has not dreamed of being pope?” Darmanin responded when asked by a journalist in 2015 if he could see himself as president of France. A suitable next step may be the premiership. Borne has been weakened by the pensions reform debacle; there are rumours that Macron will soon fire her.

In an attempt to construct a political identity of his own, Darmanin has emphasised his debt to Philippe Séguin, a long-standing leader of the Gaullist right who died in 2010. He was one of the emblematic figures of the No campaign against the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which helped pave the way for the euro. Darmanin claims adherence to Séguin’s “social Gaullism”, an ideology that originated when left-wingers rallied to Charles de Gaulle, believing that the general could create a third way between American capitalism and Soviet communism. Séguin “embodied the working classes, their doubts and their aspirations”, Darmanin wrote in a recent essay. Facing “intellectual terrorism” himself, Séguin had the answer: “Returning to the people, the affirmation of state power and the importance of the social question.”

While Darmanin plays up his connection to the industrial north of France to emphasise his connection to ordinary French people, it is surely the affirmation of state power that he has embraced most vigorously. On 25 March, thousands of environmentalists protested against plans to build a water reservoir close to the town of Sainte-Soline, western France. The protest – banned by the local prefecture – was met with harsh police violence, which left four demonstrators gravely injured, one critically. Asked to condemn police violence in a radio call-in, Darmanin responded that “there is no such thing as police violence, as by using the term you are equating the violence of those who do not have the legitimate authority to use violence and those who employ the legitimate violence of the state”. In a televised interview on 2 April, Darmanin offered himself up “to take hits on behalf” of police, the “sons and daughters of the people”.

Darmanin has become perhaps the most prominent symbol of Macron’s rightward shift and increasing reliance on the authoritarian powers of the Fifth Republic. The ambitious interior minister may be the best indicator of where French politics is headed for the rest of Macron’s term – and perhaps even beyond.

[See also: What is the Macron Doctrine?]

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