France's Macron seeks second wind with cabinet reshuffle

Emmanuel Macron, left, has picked former Socialist MP Christophe Castaner as interior minister, one of the main figures in the French President’s inner circle. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2018
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France's Macron seeks second wind with cabinet reshuffle

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his cabinet on Tuesday, appointing new interior, agriculture and culture ministers after a weeks-long search for new talent to try to revive his government’s flagging fortunes.
Two weeks after political veteran Gerard Collomb abruptly resigned as interior minister, Macron appointed the ultra-loyal head of his Republic on the Move party, Christophe Castaner, to replace him.
The centrist president also dismissed his agriculture and culture ministers, seen as weak links in his cabinet, which is a blend of experts in their field and experienced politicians from the left and right.
The prime minister, foreign and economy ministers all kept their jobs, however.
Presenting a “renewed, dynamic team with a second wind,” the presidency said it would continue on the same track of reforms.
“We will not change direction,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe vowed.
But analysts expressed doubt that the reshuffle would significantly change perceptions of the government.
“It’s a very technical reshuffle... which means it is unlikely to stir French passions,” said Chloe Morin, an analyst at Ipsos polling company.
Macron was scheduled to explain the reshuffle in a rare primetime television address later Tuesday evening.
Collomb’s departure on October 2 was a blow to Macron, coinciding with a slump in his popularity after a scandal involving a close aide, several verbal gaffes and a raft of disappointing economic data.
Collomb’s resignation followed that of star environment minister Nicolas Hulot in August, creating a sense of a government in disarray.
Macron’s delay in carrying out the reshuffle, caused partly by his difficulty in convincing people to join his team, was seen as further evidence of his weakened position.
The opposition on Tuesday slammed his hotly anticipated new picks as underwhelming.
The parliamentary leader of the center-right Republicans, Christian Jacob, said it was “more like a balloon bursting than a second wind.”
Christophe Castaner, a gregarious 52-year-old former Socialist from southern France, had been widely tipped to replace Collomb, who is returning to his home town of Lyon to serve as mayor.
A member of the president’s inner circle, Castaner was a rebellious youth who has spoken of how he rubbed shoulders with Marseille gang members at poker games before entering politics, first as a mayor than an MP.
He has little experience of national security issues but on Tuesday vowed to be “at your service, ladies and gentlemen, 24 hours a day.”
He resigned his leadership of the ruling party to take up the job.
The current head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Laurent Nunez, was named as his deputy at the interior ministry.
Macron’s choices reflected his continuing attempt to appeal to both sides of the political divide, but there were few household names in the new line-up.
Didier Guillaume, a former Socialist, was named agriculture minister, replacing Stephane Travert, while center-right former Republicans lawmaker Franck Riester took over from publisher Francoise Nyssen in culture.
There were also changes in the ministry for relations with local government, with Jacqueline Gourault taking over the tricky portfolio at a time of budget cuts that have caused deep discontent among rural mayors.
Analysts say many ministers and members of Macron’s party have struggled to emerge from his shadow since he won elections in May 2017 at the head of a newly formed pro-EU, pro-business party.
His polling numbers have slumped to their lowest level since his electoral victory in May 2017.
Surveys show that only around 30 percent of French voters have a positive view of his presidency.
He suffered the first major scandal of his presidency in July when footage emerged of one of his most trusted security aides hitting a protester while apparently posing as a policeman at a May Day rally.
Slowing economic growth — expected to fall to 1.6 percent this year from 2.3 percent in 2017 — and a series of public gaffes that fueled a perception of arrogance have also served to undermine Macron’s popularity.


Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

Updated 3 min 27 sec ago
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Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

  • Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers
  • A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday
ALLAHABAD, India: At the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious event, millions of Indian Hindus are not the only people bathing in the sacred waters to wash away their sins.
Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India for what is billed as humanity’s biggest gathering.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in a Jewish family in California but moved in 1996 to an ashram in Rishikesh — the town made famous internationally when the Beatles visited in 1968 — and changed her life and her name.
“I was on holiday with a backpack and when I got to Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, I had a very deep, very very powerful spiritual awakening experience which made me realize where I need to be, where I need to spend my life,” she said.
The 47-year-old is among the worshippers taking a dip at the Kumbh, which is expected to attract well over 100 million people over the next seven weeks.
“The reason we take a bath in the sacred waters is to achieve immortality ... immortality of the soul,” she said.
“It felt amazing, it always feels amazing... Normally only the body gets wet but here you actually feel like your inner self is getting wet, your heart, your soul is getting wet, your spirit... The depth of my being is being touched.”
A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday, according to local officials.
Nearly 30,000 police helped by drones buzzing overhead have been deployed to oversee crowds and prevent stampedes.
A vast tent city with restaurants, roads and marketplaces has sprung up along the river, with pilgrims camped out across a sprawling 45-square-kilometer (17-square-mile) zone.
Westerners who have immersed themselves in Hindu spirituality include Baba Rampuri, who claims to be the first foreigner to be initiated into India’s largest and most ancient order of yogis, the Naga Sannyasis of Juna Akhara.
The surgeon’s son — reportedly born William A. Gans — grew up in Beverly Hills and moved to India in 1970, and like Saraswati is active on Facebook and Twitter.
“I am not a great believer in modern technology, or the consumerist messages being sent out through the medium, but we have to make people aware that we exist,” he told the Indian Express.
Another is Sir James Mallinson, the dreadlocked fifth baronet of Walthamstow and British academic ordained as a mahant, or Hindu priest, in 2013. He also runs a paragliding firm in the Himalayas.
Many of the foreigners at the Kumbh are simple tourists though, keen to see the ash-smeared, pipe-smoking Naga sadhus, naked except for beads and flower garlands.
One ascetic has had his right arm raised for seven years. Another has been standing for eight months and aims to do so for another 43 months.