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Thursday July 9th, 2020 10:36AM

Macron seeks fresh start with French government reshuffle

By The Associated Press
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PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron's government sought to give itself a fresh start after a difficult summer with a limited reshuffle on Tuesday that included a new interior minister.

The reshuffle is seen as an attempt by Macron to take back control after three senior ministers resigned in recent weeks and his popularity plummeted.

Macron named key ally Christophe Castaner as interior minister, replacing Gerald Collomb as head of policing and counterterrorism.

Castaner, 52, was heading Macron's party, Republic on the Move, and was junior minister in charge of parliamentary relations.

In a brief handover ceremony at the Interior Ministry, Castaner said security issues remain the government's priority.

"I am thinking, of course, about the fight against terrorism. I am thinking, of course, about the day to day work being done night and day led by the teams from the Interior Ministry to dismantle (the terrorist cells) and to preserve and to guarantee, once again, the safety of everyone," he said.

Macron's office said the changes were meant to accompany a new wave of long-anticipated reforms.

The 40-year-old French leader, elected last year on a platform to reform the French economy, has pledged to make changes to unemployment benefits and streamline the pension system by next summer.

Four other government members were replaced Tuesday, including the culture and agriculture ministers. The key members of the government, including the finance and foreign affairs ministers, retained their positions.

Macron also appointed new junior ministers focusing mainly on economic matters and fighting poverty.

The new jobs mean the size of the government expands to 34 members, split equally between men and women, from 29 before — excluding Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

Often perceived as a "president of the rich" for cutting the taxes of the wealthy and pushing pro-business policies that favor investors and entrepreneurs, Macron is increasingly described by opponents as arrogant and aloof.

Critics also point to the low pace of economic growth and a high unemployment rate that is hovering slightly under 9 percent.

Macron created a new job of junior minister at the Solidarity and Health ministry that will focus on the fight against poverty. The Finance Ministry is strengthened with junior ministers focusing on industry policy and the digital economy. The position of junior minister for gender equality, Marlene Schiappa, is enlarged to include all fights against discrimination.

The chief of France's domestic intelligence service, Laurent Nunez, was also named as a junior interior minister.

Macron's new government immediately found itself dealing with the fury of far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who angrily denounced Macron and his new interior minister after police raids on his movement's headquarter and his home on Tuesday as part of investigations into campaign financing and suspected misuse of European Union funds.

As his supporters yelled "Resistance!" Melenchon told reporters that Macron and Castaner should be investigated too.

Melenchon lost to Macron in the first round of the presidential election in 2017. In an impromptu news conference, he suggested the investigation of his campaign finances was politically motivated and designed to scare him and his movement.

Prime minister Edouard Philippe, speaking at France's lower house of parliament, emphasized that the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by the French Constitution. "There's no individual instruction given to the prosecutor" in charge of the investigations related to Melenchon's party, he said.

_________________

Associated Press Writer John Leicester in Paris contributed to the story.

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