France's interior boss: rising star of right shadowed by rape claim

Paris (AFP) –


France's new Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, aged just 37, is a rising star of the right-wing of French politics whose ascension has not been slowed by a claim he raped a woman over a decade ago.

The son of a bar-owner father and a mother who worked as a cleaner at France's central bank, Darmanin takes on one of the most exposed portfolios in French politics -- one that has ruined careers but also propelled his mentor Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency.

He takes over at the ministry from Christophe Castaner, whose sometimes troubled two-year stint was marked by allegations of racism in the police force and complaints from officers he did not defend them.

The police should be "assured of my total support. They should never doubt that I will be the first among them," said Darmanin Tuesday at the handover from Castaner.

- 'No obstacle' -

Darmanin's youth, ambition and loyalty to President Emmanuel Macron make him a shining example of the so-called "Macronie" elite of young centre-left and centre-right figures serving the head of state since 2017.

His rapid rise has come despite allegations from a woman that he raped her in 2009 after she sought his help in having a criminal record expunged when he was a senior official of the rightwing Republicans party's predecessor, the UMP.

Darmanin has denied the claims from Sophie Patterson-Spatz and the charges were dismissed in 2018. He has himself filed a complaint against her for slander.

But earlier this year, appeals judges in Paris ordered the reopening of the investigation into the allegations.

An Elysee source said the rape complaint made against Darmanin "did not pose an obstacle" to his nomination and the case appeared to be "going in the right direction" for him.

As the ceremony was taking place in Paris to transfer power from Castaner to Darmanin, some 20 feminists protested nearby, shouting "Darmanin resign!" and "Darmanin rapist".

"It's a mighty slap in the face Emmanuel Macron has delivered to all those who mobilised against sexual violence," added Socialist senator Laurence Rossignol, a former women's rights minister.

"You are accused of rape and you get to be the number one cop in France," seethed the Osez le feminisme collective, which has launched a petition for Darmanin's resignation.

Prosecutors have dismissed allegations by a second woman who had accused Darmanin of using his position to seek sexual favours while mayor of the northern city of Tourcoing between 2014 and 2017, a claim he also denies.

- 'Treason in the genes' -

Politically, Darmanin is seen as standing to the right of Castaner, who came to Macron's government from the Socialist Party.

Darmanin cut his political teeth in Sarkozy's 2007-2012 administration, joined parliament in 2012 and was elected mayor of Tourcoing in 2012.

He left the Republicans party to join Macron's then brand-new Republic on the Move (LREM).

Darmanin has served until now as budget minister under Macron, bringing France's unwieldy tax system under tighter control despite little previous experience of fiscal affairs.

He boasted earlier this month that French tax revenue inspectors helped the state recover almost 12 billion euros ($13.5 billion) in 2019, a "record" year.

Darmanin's articulate and smooth manner have marked him out as a strong media performer, a gift not universally shared among the young politicians Macron promoted in 2017.

Taking office on Tuesday, Darmanin launched a staunch defence of France's secular system, vowing to "fight against all forces of political Islam".