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PARIS — As a place to keep your enemies closer, Beauvau, the stately Parisian building reserved for French interior ministers, is as close as it gets.
The prestigious office, a stone’s throw from the Elysée presidential palace, is where President Emmanuel Macron decided to put Gérald Darmanin, a high-profile catch for the president from the once-dominant conservative Les Républicains party.
The 38-year-old minister has been a key asset to consolidate the right-leaning part of Macron’s electorate. He will be on the front line starting January to defend Macron’s bill to combat Islamist radicalism, a high-stake initiative in the wake of a recent wave of terror attacks initially pitched as a way to fight “separatism.”
But heated debates surrounding both the separatism bill and a separate security bill have highlighted the political risks for Macron himself of putting Darmanin in such a sensitive job.
Darmanin’s unapologetic style and hard line on security and secularism, the latter being arguably France’s most politically charged issue, made some members of Macron’s majority furious and attracted unwanted international attention, which has hurt the president’s carefully crafted image as Europe’s liberal champion.
“For now, [Macron] has tried to tame [Darmanin] and to use him opportunistically, while knowing that he dreams of emerging as a conservative leader in the next decade,” said an early joiner of Macron’s party La République En Marche (LREM), who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is a dangerous bet, as Macron is alienating the left wing of his voters and is betting on someone who has always been rooting for one person only, himself,” they added.
Darmanin, who has never been shy about his ambitions, explicitly threatened Macron with campaigning against the president if he didn’t get the interior ministry job ahead of a reshuffle this summer, several insiders told POLITICO.
Darmanin ran Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign for the conservative primaries before joining Macron in 2017 as a junior budget minister. His lightning-fast promotion raised eyebrows and fueled comparisons with former President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of his political mentors.
The powerful post he now holds was Sarkozy’s own stepping stone to the presidency.
Macron, who campaigned on socially progressive values, is now in part betting his political future on someone who supported a new measure to ban veils for young girls in December, sparked a controversy in October by criticizing dedicated aisles in supermarkets for halal and kosher food, and once opposed gay marriage.
As interior minister, Darmanin has been a staunch defender of the country’s police, notably in the debate surrounding the rough handling of protesters or alleged racist violence by security forces.
But recent controversies left the government’s rising star weakened. To ease tensions on law enforcement, Macron announced a high-level consultation on police reform, a move in which he reportedly sidelined Darmanin.
The young conservative himself was surprised when Macron asked him to join his government after the 2017 election. “What is astonishing is not that Emmanuel Macron appointed a conservative minister to the budget, but that he appointed me, who voted against all the European treaties,” Darmanin told Le Monde last February.
For several months prior to the election, Darmanin had been criticizing Macron’s liberalism and his past as a banker. In an op-ed published by L’Opinion in early 2017, he denounced “Mr. Macron’s champagne socialist populism.”
“Far from being the remedy of a sick country, [his election] will on the contrary be its definitive poison [and] would precipitate France into institutional instability and lead to the break-up of our political life,” he wrote.
Darmanin changed his mind about Macron after the presidential debate with far-right leader Marine Le Pen, said Cécile Collin Tréheux, who was his political adviser for more than 10 years. He then decided to join Macron because conservative Édouard Philippe was appointed as prime minister, she said, but only after seeking advice from his mentors.
A call with Sarkozy and fellow conservative Northern Region President Xavier Bertrand convinced him to leave his political party and embrace La République En Marche’s movement, Collin Tréheux added. Despite being fired from Les Républicains after he took the job, Darmanin has always kept very close ties with key conservative figures.
In his previous position as junior budget minister, he threw several dinners and parties with right-leaning members of the government, or Sarkozy, according to several insiders.
“Macron is aware of this friendship with Sarkozy and Gérald is very transparent about it,” said Collin Tréheux, who added that Darmanin had made great efforts to prove his loyalty to LREM.
These efforts did not convince everyone in Macron’s majority, where Darmanin is still seen as a boxing showman, according to several members of the National Assembly. “He is capable of giving blows but also of receiving them,” said a ministerial staffer. While many acknowledge Darmanin’s very political mindset, doubts remain regarding his loyalty: “It’s not a question of ‘if’ he’ll betray, but of ‘when’ he’ll betray,” another early joiner of LREM said.
Darmanin’s positions have always been harder to swallow for LREM members than those of center-right Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire or former conservative Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a more moderate figure.
In the past, Darmanin has openly spoken out and voted against gay marriage, criticized the influence of gender studies in identity politics and pointed fingers at Tourcoing’s Roma population during his mayoral campaign for the Northern town. He has since turned away from these opinions, according to Collin Tréheux.
Some have accused him of catering to the far right, including by using language coming from political fringes shortly after his nomination.
When asked what Darmanin’s red line was when it comes to far-right ideas, Collin Tréheux described him as “one of the few to openly say that we must speak with the far right.” Darmanin meets or reads influential voices from the far end of the political spectrum, such as essayists Alain Finkielkraut or Éric Zemmour, according to Darmanin’s advisers and journalist Ludovic Vigogne’s biography “Tout restera en famille” (“Everything Will Stay in the Family”).
In 2016, he wrote an essay pledging for a French Islam — which he sent to Macron who was Finance minister at the time — where he suggests banning “any clothing that ostensibly proselytizes or tends to discriminate against women.” In the text, he also proposed the creation of a French Muslim Council whose leadership would be shared between a “minister of worship and secularism” and a Grand Council of Islam of France. All mosques would have to be approved by the ministry of worship and be affiliated with the Grand Council.
The government’s draft measures meant to fight Islamism echo some of these proposals, albeit with a softer approach, for instance by requesting that imams sign a “charter of republican values.”
A work-in-progress persona
Before being appointed interior minister, Darmanin faced complaints by two women accusing him in one case of “abuse of weakness” (an allegation of sexual assault) and the other of rape. The first case was dismissed, while the other is still under investigation. Darmanin hasn’t been charged in either of these cases.
The minister said he had “the past of a young man” but denied allegations of sexual violence.
His friend Franck Giovannucci, a conservative politician who has known him since 2000, joked about the fact that Darmanin was an “activist for heterosexuality” who “likes women” but is not the harasser some described. “I don’t believe the behavior that he is accused of is [compatible with] the Gérald I know.”
Still, the episode overshadowed his rapid political rise and put a spotlight on his personal background, other aspects of which he had until then used to his own political advantage.
The son of a concierge mother and a small-shop owner of Algerian, Armenian and Maltese descent, Gérald Moussa Darmanin fell into politics at the age of 16 when he discovered the late President Jacques Chirac’s conservative party RPR.
The young man soon got noticed by party heavyweights, who advised him to leave Paris to build his political career, which he did. It was in the Northern region that Darmanin won his first political successes, taking the town of Tourcoing from the Socialists who had run the city for 30 years in a surprise victory. He then became one of the country’s youngest lawmakers in 2012.
Since that time, his introduction speeches have been well-rehearsed. In one of the first profiles written on Darmanin by a university classmate and seen by POLITICO, the young politician tells the story of his working-class background, and his Algerian grandfather who fought for France during the country’s war of independence and passed down knowledge of Charles de Gaulle’s political values.
He and his press advisers have since provided more details, such as the fact that Darmanin knows every song from popular singers Renaud or George Brassens and even had to sing in the subway to pay for his studies while he battled Parisian elites to make his way in politics.
“I don’t believe he ever had to sing in the subway,” said the classmate of Sciences Po Lille university on condition of anonymity, who recalls an ambitious Darmanin who had already worked as a parliamentary assistant for conservative MP Isabelle Vasseur before joining then-MEP Jacques Toubon.
Political opponents from Darmanin in Tourcoing also mock his alleged fight with Parisian elites, as the young minister spent his high school years in an elite private school in the center of Paris.
Vincent Lannoo, former socialist deputy mayor of Tourcoing, said there was a part of “bluff” in Darmanin’s own storytelling.
“I am convinced that he is someone who is fundamentally reactionary but so desperate to take power he is ready for many things,” he said. “He very copiously betrayed his political clan from the start by taking the constituency of [his former conservative boss] Christian Vanneste; it has become a habit ever since.”
In the Northern region, Darmanin is accused by some of opportunism, including prominent members of his own camp who accused him of treason several times. “In politics, there is no lies or treason, just opportunities,” said his friend Giovanucci.