France’s Macron Reshuffles Cabinet Amid Scandals, Falling Popularity

PARIS — A year and a half into his first term, French President Emmanuel Macron is looking for a new start.

He reshuffled his cabinet Tuesday and made a rare televised address to assure France that all is well after a bruising summer which has seen his popularity rating plummet amid protests, scandals and gaffes.

“Europe is tipping almost everywhere toward extremes and again is giving way to nationalism, we need all our energy to succeed. I have confidence in us,” Macron said.

His approval rating fell to 29% in September, an all time low, after a summer of protests over proposed economic reforms and scandals involving his security aide Alexandre Benalla.

Benalla was filmed wearing a police helmet and beating May Day protesters in July, after which he was dismissed. Last month, a selfie of him posing with a gun during Macron’s campaign led to another investigation and questions over the President’s judgment.

Macron has also been hit by resignations of key cabinet officials, especially environment minister Nicolas Hulot, who quit the government during a live radio interview in frustration at Macron’s failure to tackle climate change.

“I don’t want to give the illusion that my position within the government suggested that we are answering these problems properly, so I’m leaving the government,” Hulot said. “I no longer want to lie.”

Interior minister Gerard Collomb also announced his intention to leave the cabinet and return to his old job as mayor of Lyon. He was replaced by close Macron ally Christophe Castaner in the reshuffle Tuesday.

Even as he has courted international public opinion — delivering a pointed rebuke to US President Donald Trump’s isolationist message at the United Nations — Macron has faced growing criticism at home for pursuing unpopular policies that many perceive as benefiting France’s richest and cutting into the country’s treasured social protections.

Public services ground to a halt in July amid mass protests and strikes against Macron’s proposed economic reforms, which would slash public spending and see over 120,000 people laid off.

“Macron is implementing an agenda that aims at destroying all the benefits conquered throughout the past half-century: pensions, protections against unfair dismissal, terms and conditions in both private and public sector,” Axel Persson from the CGT union’s rail workers branch told CNN at the time. “If he gets his way, we will be back to square one in terms of workers’ rights in France.”

This agenda has led to criticism by figures on the left, particularly from France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Police raided Mélenchon’s offices this week over alleged misuse of European Union funds, prompting a furious protest from the 67-year-old who has accused the investigation of being politically motivated.

A veteran left-winger, Mélenchon came a close fourth in last year’s Presidential election, less than two percentage points from making the run-off which Macron eventually won.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the other person in that run-off, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, has also ramped up pressure on Macron’s administration, fanning anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment even as the French President has emerged as one of the bloc’s strongest proponents.

“In recent months we have seen the poison of division reappear,” Macron said in his address Tuesday. “But I only have one compass, the faith you put in me in May 2017 to make our country an educational, economic, social and environmental power.”

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