French President Emmanuel Macron has replaced the ministers of the interior and environment in a revamped government under new Prime Minister Jean Castex, the presidency said Monday.
Gerald Darmanin, until now budget minister, replaces Christophe Castaner as interior minister, a troubled portfolio owing to alleged racism and violence among police forces.
Barbara Pompili, a former member of France’s green party, is the new environment minister in place of Elisabeth Borne.
But Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Defence Minister Florence Parly and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire are all staying in their posts, top presidential aide Alexis Kohler told reporters at the Elysee Palace.
France’s new Prime Minister Jean Castex was on Monday expected to unveil a reshuffled government tasked with helping the economy brave its worst crisis since World War II and injecting fresh momentum into the presidency of Emmanuel Macron.
Castex, a senior bureaucrat and provincial mayor almost completely unknown to the French before his appointment Friday, is seeking to move quickly and decisively to convince sceptics he is the right choice for the job.
The 55-year old was appointed by Macron in place of Edouard Philippe as the president seeks a fresh start for the final two years of his mandate ahead of 2022 presidential elections.
France’s economy has been battered into a historic recession by the coronavirus crisis while Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party is reeling from its drubbing in local elections late last month.
Macron wrote on Twitter Sunday that a “new path” was needed, listing the new government’s priorities as “reviving the economy, continuing an overhaul of our social protection and the environment, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty”.
The failure of LREM — founded in the run-up to Macron’s presidential bid in 2017 — in local elections again showed up its lack of a grassroots base.
Analysts have said that by appointing a low-profile figure in place of Philippe — whose popularity was outstripping Macron’s — the president wants to tighten his grip on the reins of government ahead of 2022.
– ‘New talent’ –
French parliament speaker Richard Ferrand said he expected the new government to be announced on Monday morning after an intense weekend of exchanges between Castex and Macron.
An aide to Macron, who asked not to be named, said there would be “new talent” and “people who have come from different horizons”.
However few details have leaked over what changes there will be to the government, which under the centrist Macron has always been a delicate balancing act between left and right.
Castex, who drew up the plan for France to come out of its coronavirus lockdown, was himself a member of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) but confirmed he has now handed in his party card.
One job on the line is that of interior minister Christophe Castaner, criticised both by Black Lives Matter protesters over alleged racism in the police force but also by officers for a perceived lack of support.
But it is far from clear if those holding the key ministries of state — ex-rightwinger Bruno Le Maire at economy and former Socialists Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly at foreign affairs and defence — will be moved on.
– ‘Not an option’ –
Much attention is on the future of the environment ministry, a troubled domain for Macron after the sensational resignation from the post of popular campaigner Nicolas Hulot in 2018 on the grounds that it was impossible to get anything done.
Castex, not so far known for his green credentials, has said “ecology is not an option but an obligation”, following a strong performance by the Greens in municipal polls.
But Yannick Jadot, an MEP and key figure in the EELV green party, retorted that there was “perfect continuity between Jean Castex and Edouard Philippe”, saying neither “had ever shown any kind of interest in the climate or biodiversity”.
Philippe meanwhile has returned to the relative peace of his old job as mayor of the Normandy port of Le Havre. Opinion divided over whether he will fade into the background or could one day pose a challenge to Macron.
Edouard Philippe served President Emmanuel Macron for three years as a loyal and unshowy prime minister, but his rising popularity and refusal to join the ruling party put his future on the line.
With the French government resigning on Friday in the wake of disappointing local elections, a new name will now take the reins as Macron prepares for 2022 presidential polls.
Macron plucked Philippe, then a member of the rightwing Republicans, from provincial obscurity as mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre to become premier after he won the 2017 presidential election.
Philippe admitted he met Macron only three times before the first round of that election, and of being “terrified” before installing himself in the premier’s residence of the Hotel de Matignon.
But in recent weeks the profile of the bearded and measured Philippe has begun to outstrip that of the more reclusive president.
It has been Philippe, rather than Macron, who has waged battle on the political frontline both in this winter’s strikes over pension reforms and now the coronavirus epidemic.
As Macron largely restricted his public pronouncements to televised addresses to the nation, it was left to his premier to provide regular updates as the outbreak worsened and then levelled off.
– ‘Act of confidence’ – The premier’s efforts were rewarded with a spike in popularity noted by polling agencies, as Macron’s early boost in the crisis eroded.
This created speculation that the president may be none too happy to have a premier who risked stealing the limelight.
A poll by Harris Interactive-Epoka published last week showed that 44 percent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Macron but 51 percent were positive on Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the premier since the start of the epidemic.
His avowedly unspectacular and technocratic style won new fans during the extremes of the COVID-19 crisis, when he refused to sugar the pill and kept a sober and often sombre tone.
Central to tensions that reportedly exist between Macron and Philippe was the face that his premier never became a card-carrying member of Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM).
He left The Republicans as the right imploded following the fake jobs scandal that torpedoed the presidential campaign of former premier Francois Fillon, but has resolutely stayed an independent.
In recent weeks Philippe waged two political battles — for his future as prime minister and also for the mayorship of Le Havre in his native Normandy, the post he held from 2010-2017, in local elections.
Philippe won a resounding victory in the battle for Le Havre that further cemented his political credibility but intensified expectations that he and Macron could no longer work together as a tandem.
The LREM did not notch up a single major urban victory in the municipal elections, making Philippe’s success as an independent even more glaring.
He described the results as “clear” and an “act of confidence.”
It seems that now Philippe will drift back to his Norman bastion of Le Havre, even if his long-term ambitions are unclear.
– ‘Doudoumania’ – Nicknamed “Doudou,” Philippe’s popularity surge resulted in the unlikely term “Doudoumania” entering the French media.
Letting his beard grow during the coronavirus crisis, viewers noticed a white patch emerging on its left side, which Philippe revealed was caused by the skin condition vitiligo.
“Edouard Philippe — the unknown who governs France,” glossy current affairs magazine Paris Match said on its front cover this month, with a picture of the gangly 1.94-metre (6 feet 4 inches) premier in decidedly unfashionable chinos and sweater striding through the streets of Le Havre.
Philippe, who worked at a law firm and then as a lobbyist for state nuclear group Areva, supported the Socialists early in his political career before switching to the Republicans.
Belying his staid image, in his spare time Philippe has co-authored two thrillers and is also a keen boxer.
And those close to him say despite his somewhat dour public persona he is hilarious in private, with a talent for impersonations of senior politicians such as ex-presidents Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac or Nicolas Sarkozy.
French prosecutors on Thursday asked for ex-national team star and Real Madrid footballer Karim Benzema to face trial on charges of involvement in an alleged attempt to blackmail fellow player Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape almost five years ago.
Prosecutors in Versailles outside Paris told AFP they want Benzema tried on charges of complicity in attempted blackmail over the incident in 2015. If convicted, he could face a five-year prison sentence.
Benzema’s lawyer, Sylvain Cormier, said he was “not at all surprised” by the request. “These are false and unjustified charges,” he added. “It’s in line with what the prosecution has been doing in this case from the start.”
French tax sleuths helped the state recover almost 12 billion euros in 2019, Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin said Wednesday on Twitter, calling it a “record” year.
Revenue obtained following tax audits accounted for almost 11 billion euros ($12 billion), on top of which rectified declarations added 358 million euros and judicial conventions involving Google and asset management firm Carmignac another 530 million euros, figures published by the financial daily Les Echos and confirmed by the economy ministry showed.
French people went to the polls wearing face masks Sunday in the final round of municipal elections expected to yield a rebuke for President Emmanuel Macron’s party.
Amid persistent fears of coronavirus contagion, just over 15 percent of voters had turned out by midday — fewer even than four hours into the first election round on March 15 marked by a record 55-percent abstention rate.
Polls opened for 12 hours for some 16.5 million eligible voters at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nearly 5,000 cities and towns, about 15 percent of the country’s municipal councils, where the first election round did not yield a decisive outcome.
Power remains up for grabs in the key cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg.
The opening round was held just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, scheduled for March 22, was put off after France went into lockdown.
A new date was set after the government’s scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters are required to wear face masks and were urged to bring their own pens.
Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.
“If one can go shopping, why not go vote?” said an undeterred Martine Legros, 67, who cast her ballot in Dijon in eastern France.
– High toll –
Analysts expect the election to confirm that Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party — founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win — has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.
The party made lacklustre showings in March — notably in Paris where Macron’s candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.
Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is forecast to hold on to the capital.
“The problem is that the LREM is a new party that has no local roots and is struggling to impose itself as a (political) force,” analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.
He predicted that disillusionment with the party may put people off going out to vote in already complicated circumstances.
With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the pandemic.
The country went into lockdown on March 17, just two days after the first election round that critics say should not have been held. Voting started just hours after the government ordered all restaurants and bars closed.
Most restrictions have now been eased.
– Cabinet reshuffle? –
During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — an unshowy technocratic — saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, whose policies have been the target of months of protests and strikes.
Macron’s critics say he is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.
Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM Sunday could see Macron announce a cabinet reshuffle, possibly axing Philippe, who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.
Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.
Firing Philippe would allow Macron “to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the ‘second act’ of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron’s main challenger is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally.
Despite an abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, France’s Socialists are expected Sunday to keep key regional centres, including Paris, where three women are vying for the top job.
There will also be close attention on the Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.
In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to take France’s second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.
For Le Pen’s National Rally, the big prize would be Perpignan in the south, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995.
The only region of France not voting Sunday is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is deemed too active to open polling stations.
Three Paris Saint-Germain players and another member of staff were found to have contracted coronavirus during lockdown but are “no longer contagious” after further tests, the French champions said Tuesday.
PSG said the unnamed players were free to take part in training when it resumes later this week after undergoing “serological tests” on Monday.
Spain reopened its borders with France on Sunday, getting rid of one of the most potent symbols of Europe’s battle against the coronavirus, as infections in Latin America surged past two million.
Europeans are just emerging from some of the world’s toughest lockdowns, with cars trickling across the reopened Spain-France border early on Sunday a day after Italy enjoyed its first top-flight football match in 103 days.
In the United States, which has also been taking stuttering steps to reopen even as 20 states have reported a rebound in infections, President Donald Trump held his first rally in months on Saturday.
He boasted to the audience in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he had told his team to slow the rate of testing to reduce the number of registered cases.
“When you do testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases,” he said, even as six members of his advance team tested positive for COVID-19.
He faces re-election as the US deals with a tanking economy and the world’s worst virus outbreak, with almost 120,000 deaths out of more than 2.2 million cases.
Brazil is the second worst-affected country with almost 50,000 deaths and more than one million cases, helping to push Latin America’s total infections beyond the two million mark, according to an AFP tally early on Sunday.
The virus has now killed more than 460,000 people and infected almost nine million worldwide.
‘On our guard’
Although the spread has slowed in Europe, the continent is still the worst-affected with more than 2.5 million cases.
Spain has been among Europe’s hardest hit nations, but on Sunday it lifted a slew of restrictions in a bid to get its tourism industry back up and running.
As well as opening its border with France, officials confirmed that EU nationals, those from the passport-free Schengen zone and Britons would not have to quarantine.
“We must remain on our guard and strictly follow hygiene and protection measures,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday, highlighting that the danger has not passed.
In France, millions of children were preparing to return to school on Monday after three months away.
Cinemas and other cultural institutions were also getting set for reopening.
Concert halls and other institutions in Germany, however, have had to slash their events calendars and drastically reduce capacities.
Musicians such as Cristina Gomez Godoy, a member of Berlin’s Staatskapelle orchestra, have taken to playing in highly unusual settings.
“It is a pleasure for us as musicians to play together again, despite the smaller format, and I think the audience will enjoy it too,” she told AFP as she tuned up for a concert with four colleagues in the courtyard of an apartment building in Berlin.
‘Like zoo animals’
Thousands of miles away on the fringes of Eastern Europe, cases have spiked again in Azerbaijan, forcing the government to institute another lockdown — much to the irritation of local workers.
“The government again cages us in like zoo animals and gives not a damn to the consequences,” taxi driver Shahin Mamedkuliyev told AFP.
Clusters have also emerged in Morocco, which is opening a field hospital on Sunday capable of handling 700 patients, and in Beijing.
Local authorities in the Chinese capital have set up more than 2,000 testing sites across the city that had obtained 2.3 million samples, according to state news media.
The Palestinian Authority announced on Saturday it was temporarily closing the cities of Hebron and Nablus in the occupied West Bank after a sharp rise in infections.
Only goods will be allowed in, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh told journalists. Authorities have reported a total of 687 cases in the West Bank, including two deaths so far.
A vaccine remains months off at best despite several trials. Scientists are still learning more about the virus, its symptoms and the extent to which it may have spread before being identified.
Up to 5,000 spectators will be allowed to attend sports events in stadiums in France when they re-open on July 11, the French government announced on Saturday.
The limit applies to “big events, stadiums and concert halls”, the government said, but it may be raised later in the summer.
“A review of the national epidemiological situation will be carried out in mid-July to decide if it is possible to relax (the rules) in the second half of August,” it added in a statement.
Although football’s Ligue 1 and 2 and rugby’s Top 14 league decided to end their seasons in April after they were halted in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government’s decision means a crowd should be able to attend football’s French Cup and League Cup finals.
A date has not been sent for either match but they are expected to be played at the end of July.
More than 29,600 people have died from virus-related conditions in France, but hospital admissions are constantly falling and the national lockdown was lifted in May.
France will begin to shake off its coronavirus blues Sunday with cinemas opening on the stroke of midnight and thousands of people taking to the streets for its midsummer music festival.
The annual Festival of Music usually brings millions of people out in towns and cities across the country with a mix of large-scale events and impromptu concerts in cafes and on street corners that go on long into the night.
But this year there are few big set-piece extravaganzas beyond what French electronic music legend Jean-Michel Jarre has billed as the world’s first live virtual “avatar” concert — “like in the Matrix”.
The veteran performer hopes to go one better than the lockdown gig performed by the US rapper Travis Scott inside the shooter game Fortnite in April, which was watched by more than 12 million players.
Social distancing means that the Accord Arena in Paris will only be able to welcome 2,000 fans — a tenth of its normal capacity — for a show featuring a stellar line-up of francophone talent.
While gatherings of more than 10 people are still banned in France, its culture ministry said police would be tolerant with outdoor jamming sessions on the night if people keep their distance.
Having rushed back to the terraces of their cafes and restaurants earlier this month, millions of French people are also waiting with bated breath for cinemas to reopen Monday.
Casinos will also welcome gamblers from Monday while stadiums and racetracks will reopen on July 11, subject to a limit of 5,000 people, the government announced late Friday.
Millions of children are also getting set to return to school for the last few weeks before summer holidays, after roughly three months at home.
On Monday, all pupils in primary and secondary schools up to the age of 15 will be able to return, following a gradual reopening in recent weeks.
“I cried with joy when I got the confirmation from the teacher that my two children would be going back to school full time,” said Noemie from Nice.
And although France ended its top-level football season in April, team sports are due to return to stadiums on Monday, though without fans until July 11.
Red carpet and champagne
Some cinemas will start screenings on the stroke of midnight to celebrate the return of the big screen, with one close to the Champs Elysees in Paris hosting a red-carpet champagne preview screening of “Les Parfums” (The Perfumes), starring Emmanuelle Devos and Sergi Lopez.
France is one of the most cinephile countries in the world. A poll earlier this week claimed that 18.7 million people — almost a third of the population — plan to go see a film in the next month.
“I only have one word — finally!” Emmanuel Delesse, one of the directors of cinema chain UGC, told AFP as he prepared to reopen the group’s near 400 theatres.
He said cinemagoers will have to wear masks as they queue for tickets and in the corridors.
The authorities also insisted that screening rooms can never be more than half full with a free seat either side of each filmgoer.
But with French as well as Hollywood producers having put back the release of some of their biggest films, there may be very little new fare to see.
Instead film fans will have to content themselves with movies like “De Gaulle”, a biopic of France’s wartime leader, whose release was interrupted by the lockdown.
However, a handful of likely Hollywood blockbusters are already looming on the horizon for July, led by Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet”, about a spy who must stop World War III breaking out, and Disney’s Chinese historical action epic, “Mulan”.
France’s highest administrative authority on Friday dismissed a challenge by Google against a fine of 50 million euros ($56 million) for failing to provide adequate information on its data consent policies.
The fine was imposed in 2019 by France’s data watchdog, the CNIL.
It found at the time that Google made it too difficult for users to understand and manage preferences on how their personal information is used, in particular with regards to targeted advertising.
Its ruling applied principles enshrined in the EU’s strict new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Google then appealed.
But on Friday, the Council of State, a French government body that is also the court of last resort for matters of administrative justice, confirmed the CNIL ruling.
It agreed the information that Google provided to users “does not meet the requirements of clarity and accessibility required by the GDPR” even when the nature and volume of data collected was “particularly intrusive.”
The council said the CNIL’s record fine was not disproportionate “given the particular seriousness of the breaches committed, their continuous nature and duration, the ceilings provided for by the GDPR (up to four percent of turnover) and Google’s financial situation.”
In a statement sent to AFP, the American giant said it would “now examine the changes we need to make”.
The matter was brought to the CNIL by two advocacy groups shortly after the landmark GDPR directive came into effect.
One was filed on behalf of some 10,000 signatories by France’s Quadrature du Net group, and the other by None Of Your Business, created by the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems.
Schrems had accused Google of securing “forced consent” via its Android mobile operating software through the use of pop-up boxes online or on its apps which imply that its services will not be available unless the conditions of use are accepted.
The CNIL noted in its ruling that details on how long a person’s data can be kept and what it is used for were spread over several different web pages.
Modifying a user’s data preferences required clicking through a variety of pages such as “More Options”, and often the choices to accept Google’s terms were pre-checked by default.
It was not the first time the regulator had taken Google to task.
In 2014 it fined the company 150,000 euros — the maximum possible at the time — for failing to comply with privacy guidelines.
And in 2016 it imposed a 100,000-euro penalty over non-compliance with the EU’s “right to be forgotten” rule which allows people to request having references to them removed from search results.
At least 3,000 children have fallen victim to sex abuse in the French Catholic Church since 1950, a commission set up to examine claims estimated Wednesday, adding that the real number may be much higher.
The commission’s president Jean-Marc Sauve said preliminary figures suggested some 1,500 clergy and other Church officials carried out the abuse.
The commission was set up last June at the request of French bishops after a series of paedophilia cases that rocked the Church in France and abroad.
A hotline urging victims to come forward has received 5,300 calls over the past year, Sauve told journalists in a video conference.
The number of estimated victims represents more than 40 cases per year on average over the past seven decades.
“I am deeply convinced that there are many more victims,” Sauve said.
“What we do not know is how to consolidate these two sources” of potential cases — the hotline and the commission’s own inquiries, he said.
The call for witnesses has been extended to October 31 and reviews of Church archives have resumed after being suspended during France’s coronavirus lockdown.
Pope Francis has vowed to confront criminal offences in the Church’s ranks, including several cases in which top officials knew of sexual assault but failed to inform the authorities.
Last year, Francis passed a measure obliging those with knowledge of child sexual abuse to report it to their superiors, a move that was expected to bring numerous new cases to light.
The commission headed by Sauve, a high-ranking civil servant, includes legal experts, doctors, historians, sociologists, and theologians.
It is expected to produce a final report next year with recommendations on how to prevent abuse.
Payouts planned Victims’ associations have applauded the French Church’s pledge of transparency, having long accused its senior officials of covering up paedophilia cases to protect priests from prosecution.
In the most recent high-profile case, a defrocked Catholic priest was given a five-year jail term in March for sexually abusing boy scouts in his care several decades ago.
Bernard Preynat, 75, had confessed at his trial in the southeastern city of Lyon to “caresses” he knew were forbidden after victims testified of the abuses they suffered at his hands.
He faulted the Church hierarchy, saying “They should have helped me… They let me become a priest.”
The scandal became the subject of an acclaimed film last year titled “Grace a Dieu” (By the Grace of God) by director Francois Ozon, who worked with some of the victims.
But in January, an appeals court overturned the conviction of Preynat’s superior, Lyon’s former archbishop Philippe Barbarin, for not reporting the abuse despite knowing about it for years.
The court said that while Barbarin should have informed the authorities, he was not criminally liable for his lack of action.
French bishops agreed last November to provide financial compensation to victims of sex abuse by priests.
The potential sums were set to be discussed in April, with priority for victims from several years ago whose cases are beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.
But the coronavirus lockdown halted such meetings until further notice.