PARIS — He has declared war on the Islamist “enemy within” and halal food shelves in supermarkets. He launched what he described as a “massive” operation against 76 of France’s mosques, and sought to criminalize the filming of police officers. And he announced that he “can’t breathe” when he hears the term “police violence” — mocking a cry against police brutality that originated in the United States and resonated around the world.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin of France is at the center of a triple-headed political crisis that is rocking the late stages of the presidency of Emmanuel Macron — over Islam, police brutality and freedom of the press.
And there is no sign that Mr. Darmanin is buckling.
This week, the youthful, 38-year-old Mr. Darmanin appeared on the cover of the magazine Paris Match, a sure sign that he has transcended the Paris political bubble and entered into the public consciousness. “Baptism by Fire” is the headline in the widely read weekly magazine, which combines news with extensive coverage of celebrities, next to a posed picture of the minister looking thoughtful.
Vilified on the left and mistrusted by former colleagues on the right, Mr. Darmanin, who is the minister in charge of the French police, has become indispensable to Mr. Macron at a time when a majority of French are demanding law, order and toughness in the face of what the president calls “Islamism” after a spate of terrorist attacks.
“For Emmanuel Macron, he’s his guarantee to the right,” said Boris Vallaud, a prominent socialist in the French Parliament, referring to Mr. Darmanin. “There’s a demand for order right now. On the whole field of public liberties, of religion, he’s letting his minister push forward — until the day when he pulls in the leash.”
So far, the leash has not been seriously pulled.
In the pugnacious and ambitious Mr. Darmanin, Mr. Macron has found an ideal confluence of the man and the political moment, acting in response to France’s sharp shift to the right. Freelance jihadists have murdered French citizens; Mr. Darmanin is there to search and question Muslims suspected of extremism. The police are accused of brutality and racism in a series of violent incidents; Mr. Darmanin is there to defend them, and insist they only need better equipment and working conditions.
“We owe them an apology for the way we put them out in the streets to do a job that’s very difficult,” Darmanin said at a parliamentary hearing last week. He decried the “unspeakable” video of the police beating of a Black music producer in Paris this month that went viral on social media and brought new calls to address racism and police brutality, but he also insisted it was merely the work of “individuals.”
The police mostly suffer from a lack of training, he said. Mr. Darmanin’s predecessor at the Interior Ministry, Christophe Castaner, was dismissed over the summer after hinting at that there is racism in the police, infuriating the unions. Mr. Darmanin runs no such risk. Now he must answer to union fury at Mr. Macron for daring to make similar suggestions in an interview with Brut, an online news site last week.
The minister’s parliamentary performance was soothing to the all-powerful police unions, reassuring to Mr. Macron’s crucial constituents on the right, and offered a nod to those disturbed by the violence. That can only aid the onward march of a political chameleon who many believe has the presidential Élysée Palace as his ultimate goal.
In some ways, Mr. Darmanin’s performance imitated Mr. Macron’s own varying colorations, always balancing between left and right.
So eager was Mr. Macron to retain Mr. Darmanin — he was previously the public accounts minister before his appointment to the interior post in July — that the president has brushed off a 2009 rape accusation against the minister that is still under investigation.
Mr. Macron told an interviewer this summer that “it was not up to him to judge” whether the reopening of the investigation was warranted. He added, about his exchanges with Mr. Darmanin, that “there is also a relation of confidence, man-to-man.”
Those words, and Mr. Darmanin’s appointment, infuriated French feminists, and there were several days of demonstrations that petered out amid general indifference. Court documents and testimony in the case suggest that Mr. Darmanin, before he became minister, used his position of authority to obtain sexual relations with a woman seeking his official help. Mr. Darmanin has acknowledged relations with the woman but said they were consensual.
The affair has been largely passed over — the minister’s lawyers recently obtained a postponement of an appearance before investigators. Mr. Darmanin has also moved on to a task his predecessor failed at, placating the police in the country with the highest security agent-to-citizen ratio in Europe. Mr. Macron would know well what he owes the French national police: ever-tougher police tactics put down the Yellow Vest popular uprising against his political reforms that threatened his presidency in 2018.
“Darmanin is someone who adapts very impressively to his circumstances,” said Pierre Mathiot, the director of the Political Studies Institute at Lille, where Mr. Darmanin was a student, and who has known him for several decades.
“So he’s understood that he’s got to be the minister of the police. And not of the people who have relations with them,” Mr. Mathiot said. “He’s using this crisis to get more for the police than Castaner got.” He added that Mr. Darmanin would use the proposed restrictions on citizens filming officers to get more funding for the police.
Critics have struggled to situate Mr. Darmanin politically, which speaks to his great usefulness for Mr. Macron, who has staked out a middle ground in French politics himself. Is he from the right? From the center? Even a little bit on the left, because of his modest family background?
“It’s hard to say whether he’s authoritarian or not,” Mr. Mathiot said. “I don’t think he’s that different from Macron.”
Mr. Darmanin is definitely not of the economic and educational elite who fill the ranks of the president’s aides. His father ran a bar in the industrial north and his mother was a cleaner at the French central bank. Mr. Darmanin’s Muslim grandfather fought for the French in the Algerian independence war, and his own middle name is Moussa.
Mr. Darmanin’s aides did not make him available for an interview, and a half-dozen of his former parliamentary colleagues in the center-right party he belonged to previously did not respond to interview requests, though several have been quoted expressing bitterness at him for abandoning them to join Mr. Macron.
“He’s coming out of a very working-class background,” one of Mr. Darmanin’s top aides said in an interview, “and his idea is, you’ve got to speak to the people more. He’s the incarnation of the working-class right.” The aide asked not to be quoted by name under prevailing ground rules in French ministries.
Up until the moment when Mr. Macron first recruited him in 2017, his political credentials were impeccably on the French right. He was campaign manager for former President Nicolas Sarkozy in his failed bid to regain his position in the 2017 election; mayor of Tourcoing, a grimy industrial town in the north, and the parliamentary representative for France’s main center-right party from his home base in the north.
He succeeded a politician, Christian Vanneste, who gave him his political start as an intern, and who was subsequently forced out of the party — Mr. Vanneste said he resigned — for his blatant homophobia. Mr. Darmanin, seizing the opportunity, ran against him and won. Mr. Vanneste has never forgiven him.
“He’s a careerist, and an absolutely miserable one,” Mr. Vanneste said. “He betrayed me, that’s all. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Others have a somewhat more nuanced view.
“What he tries to do is seize the opportunities of the moment — to gain position,” said a centrist deputy in the French Parliament, Charles de Courson. “And Macron is trying to use him, in order to crush the right.”