Emmanuel Macron caught in new row over 'cronyism'

David Chazan
La Republique en Marche candidate Gerald Darmanin speaks during a political rally ahead of France's March 2020 mayoral elections in Tourcoing, northern France

Emmanuel Macron was accused of “cronyism” on Sunday over a controversial decision to allow his budget minister to assume a second post as mayor of a northern French city.

It was the latest blow to the unpopular centrist president since his party lost its absolute majority in parliament when 17 of its MPs defected to a new Left-leaning group last week.

Mr Macron has granted his protégé, Gérald Darmanin, an exemption to an unwritten rule that ministers may not hold another public office simultaneously, breaking an election promise by the president that members of his government would not hold second jobs.

A 2014 law banned French MPs from holding lucrative mayoral posts but it does not apply to ministers, who are not MPs in France. However, for the past two decades successive governments have generally observed a tacit ban on the practice, with few exceptions.

Mr Darmanin, 37, won the first round of the mayoral election  in Tourcoing outright in March, making a runoff vote unnecessary. His victory was confirmed by a city council decision on Saturday. However, opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the election given the record low turnout of only about a quarter of voters, days before France imposed its coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Darmanin, a conservative who has played a key role in Mr Macron’s pro-business economic reforms, said the president had granted him special permission “to hold both posts for a time and in view of the exceptional circumstances” of the coronavirus crisis. He said he would donate his mayor’s salary to the Society for the Protection of Animals.

Valérie Pécresse, the influential conservative president of the Paris region, said: “I really don’t see how you can be budget minister at a time of crisis and mayor of a city with a population of 100,000 at the same time.”

Rémi Meurin, a far-Right Tourcoing councillor, accused Mr Macron of “flagrant cronyism” aimed at enlarging his party’s slender grassroots support base. “This means he will be a part-time minister and a part-time mayor.”

After Mr Macron’s surprise ascent to the presidency in 2017, he was credited with redrawing the political landscape, obliterating traditional political divisions to include Right- and Left-wingers in his government.

But his party, La République En Marche (LREM), has haemorrhaged Left-wing support amid protests and strikes over his economic reforms. The president’s approval rating is now 39 per cent, according to a poll published on Sunday.