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.


’Lebanese Connection’ drug trial to open in Paris

Updated 14 min 5 sec ago
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’Lebanese Connection’ drug trial to open in Paris

  • The chief defendant is Mohamad Noureddine, a 44-year-old Lebanese businessman with interests in real estate and jewelry
  • The trial is scheduled to wind up on Nov. 28

PARIS: Fifteen alleged members of a vast crime ring accused of laundering Colombian drug money through luxury jewelry and using shadowy middlemen from the Lebanese diaspora go on trial in Paris on Tuesday.
The chief defendant is Mohamad Noureddine, a 44-year-old Lebanese businessman with interests in real estate and jewelry.
He was arrested in France in January 2016 during police raids that also took place in Italy, Belgium and Germany, after an alert from the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
US officials, who have imposed sanctions on Noureddine over his supposed links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, suspect the network of operating between South America, Europe and the Middle East since 2012.
They identified France, where several of the defendants reside, as being at the center of the syndicate’s operations in Europe.
The proceeds of cocaine sales were allegedly collected in Europe, then channelled to Lebanon before being transferred to Colombian traffickers.
The funds were moved using a centuries-old system of payment dating from the spice trade called “hawala,” passing through a tested network requiring ironclad trust.
Hawala operators also offer the advantage of leaving no trace of the transactions.

A few months after Noureddine’s arrest US police detained the suspected head of the network, Mohamad Ammar, in Florida on charges that he illegally moved hundreds of thousands of dollars into Miami banks.
Ammar, who regularly shuttled between California and Colombia’s second city Medellin, has since admitted his ties to Colombian drug cartels, prosecutors say.
Investigators in the “Lebanese Connection” inquiry, also dubbed the “Cedar Affair” after Lebanon’s national tree, suspect a main client was a Colombian drug king known as El Chapulin who shipped large quantities of cocaine to Europe.
After the drugs were sold, the network used hawala operatives to gather the proceeds, employing well established techniques such as regularly changing mobile phones, coded language and hiding money in cars.
Investigators listening in on phone conversations deduced that a “Mercedes 250” referred to a pickup of 250,000 euros, while a “truck” referred to one million euros.
The “oven” was a reference to the Netherlands, and Belgium was known as the “mill.”
The collected cash was then used to buy luxury jewelry, watches and cars which were resold in Lebanon or West Africa.
The freshly laundered funds were transferred to the Colombians through currency exchange or money transfer bureaus.
Noureddine has admitted to organizing pickups of cash but pleaded ignorance about the provenance of the funds.
He has staunchly denied that some of the money could have been destined for Hezbollah as the DEA has suggested.
William Julie, a lawyer for one of the defendants who is familiar with cross-border cases handled by both US and European investigators, said such cooperation is “indispensable” but often leads only to “second-tier individuals who shouldn’t be caught up in the crackdown.”
His client, who is considered close to Noureddine, has strongly denied any wrongdoing. He was detained for 18 months before being freed on bail.
None of the defendants have criminal records.
The trial is scheduled to wind up on November 28.