Christophe Castaner – Publicity Stunts and Truncheon Blows

Little considered in the majority and even in the ranks of the government, the Minister of the Interior has assumed, from the beginning, the repression of the “Yellow Vests” movement. In doing so, he mainly applies what the police unions ask of him, and embodies the safe turn of Emmanuel Macron.

The reactions are always the same. To evoke the name of Christophe Castaner in front of his governmental colleagues causes evasive glances, wry smiles, and embarrassed pouts. Some people sometimes utter “he does the job”, but the enthusiasm usually stops there. Since Emmanuel Macron and Édouard Philippe decided, after 15 long days of reflection, to appoint the former Socialist Party mayor of Forcalquier (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) in Beauvau, the Minister of the Interior is far to have convinced that he is adequate for the job.

It was in October 2018, after Gérard Collomb’s forced departure. Christophe Castaner, back then secretary of state in charge of relations with the Parliament and general delegate of the La République en Marche (LREM) party, inherited the portfolio, but not the title of Minister of State. From number two of the government, the Minister of the Interior moves into tenth in the order of protocol. Under the eye of a secretary of state who is much more experienced than him on security and intelligence issues: the former boss of the Internal Security Directorate General (DGSI), Laurent Nuñez.

A month later, the “Yellow Vests” crisis breaks out. Very soon, the new tenant of Place Beauvau tries to put on the costume of the “first cop of France”, literally as well as figuratively, and doesn’t hesitate to show himself alongside law enforcement, with virile handshakes and a hooded sweatshirt in support. The former mayor of Forcalquier communicates a lot and tweets up to being ridiculed, to the consternation of some of his Macronist friends. “Casta does not have the code of practice, he did not work on his function,” says one of them. “Working does not mean taking photos with the cops … “

His latest outings did not help things. The false “attack” on Pitié-Salpêtrière, the NGO “accomplices” of smugglers “He makes a number of mistakes and he must be careful,” recently warned his predecessor in Beauvau, on Europe 1. “I think that when you’re the Minister of the Interior, you do not have to communicate every day”. Those who are still in the government are more cautious in their criticism, recalling between the lines that Christophe Castaner has been faithful from the first day towards the President of the Republic and that in this respect, he occupies a special place in the macronist system.

Some even evoke a form of immunity, adding however that the episode of the nightclub trip on March 9th, just after act 17 of Yellow Vests, created tension between the two men. Just like the episode of Pitié-Salpêtrière that fed the newspapers the week when Emmanuel Macron would have preferred that the journalists concentrate on his announcements upon exiting the grand debate. “The Minister of the Interior has all my confidence,” said Edward Philippe evasively when asked about this topic.

“Cazeneuve or Joxe, not to mention their more or less rigid or authoritarian position, are ministers who did not go to nightclubs,” mocks a senior officer of the gendarmerie. “This is not as anecdotal as it seems. Being the Minister of the Interior is a function that must be embodied and inhabited.” And he continued: “We must recognise that Macron ended up in a ghost town and that he did not have many people at hand, especially after the Benalla affair. He has therefore chosen a minister who I will call a minister of the moment, of the crisis, even though he has difficulty managing it even now. It often adds chaos to the crisis.”

In essence, Christophe Castaner does not master much. “The general philosophy, that of a return to order, comes from the President of the Republic,” explains a ministerial advisor. “Strzoda and Kohler [respectively the Director of the Cabinet and Secretary General of the Élysée – ed] give the directives”. In the opinion of those who take part in the preparatory meetings for the Saturdays of Yellow Vests, the Minister of the Interior also has no operational control, decided from start to finish by the prefect of Paris: first Michel Delpuech, sacked after the violence of March 16th; today Didier Lallement.

In an attempt to try to embody the function, Castaner focuses on form. With limited success to say the least, if one believes his colleagues in the government, whose language becomes looser. “He did not find the right method, he does not learn anything,” blows a minister, explaining that the tenant of Beauvau is just applying a bit foolishly what is asked of him by Élysée Palace. “I do not feel great empathy coming from the members of the government vis-à-vis Castaner,” admits another, who prefers to change the subject and praise “the great professional qualities” of Laurent Nuñez. “When you need to ask something, you prefer to ask Nuñez,” adds a third.

Even the tone on the side of police officers, who the Minister of the Interior takes care to pamper, having abandoned the idea of having any authority over his troops. Because they have known him for a long time and recognise his expertise, law enforcement considers that Nuñez is their true boss. “In Beauvau, he is the one who examines the dossiers, asks for summaries, annotates them. He pre-chews the work. Castaner has only to initial what is presented to him,” said an old veteran of the police.

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The secretary of state has a reputation of being a hard worker. When he headed the Directorate General of Internal Security (DGSI), he arrived at the office at 6 am and left at midnight, which had the effect of annoying the agents responsible for his safety. “Today, he is present everywhere,” continues the policeman mentioned above. “During the Notre-Dame fire, he was seen on the forecourt while Castaner was in Mayotte.”

Very often, the minister goes out with his secretary of state: 220 obligations planned as a duo, more than two thirds of the provisional agenda of Beauvau. “Who is the minister? Mr. Nuñez or Mr. Castaner? This duo is nicknamed ‘Twix’ [in reference to the double chocolate bar – ed]. Castaner is obliged to be assisted by his secretary of state, given his lack of knowledge on issues,” said the high ranking officer of the gendarmerie mentioned above. “Castaner is still learning,” confirms a policeman. “We have the impression that he plays a role. For us, this is not a bad distribution of tasks with Nuñez, the technician.”

And then, the Minister of the Interior has the reputation of having the ear of the President, which offers certain advantages. In Gerard Collomb’s time, intelligence officers dubbed Pierre de Bousquet de Florian – the national intelligence coordinator attached to the Elysee – the “vice minister”. As soon as it was a question of unblocking resources or manpower, their bosses went directly through him, skipping Beauvau. With Castaner, things seem simpler. “We are aware that he can be useful for us, that with him we will overcome the inter-ministerial obstacle when we ask for money,” assures a unionist.

Others, however, show themselves to be more critical. “Christophe Castaner is a very good communicator, we cannot take this away from him, but when one is a minister, there is not only that …” regrets a member of the prefectorial. In another regal ministry, the evocation of the alleged boss of Beauvau leaves much to be desired: “He is not calculated …” summarises a senior official. “For us, there is no interest in showing our minister with him. At the limit, if we have a common subject, we will try to organise a trip with Laurent Nuñez!”

A summary in three letters: LBD

This lack of knowledge of dossiers, evoked by almost all of our interlocutors, has often created embarrassing situations. Several sources explain for example that Christophe Castaner proposed to use the military from the first days of the Yellow Vests crisis, to the the amazement of senior officials to who he submitted the idea. After being contacted, Place Beauvau evaded the topic: “What was done between December 1st and 8th is to substitute police and gendarmes with soldiers of the Sentinel force for security functions at sites not confronted with protesters.”

The visceral need to communicate of his minister also caused discomfort at various times, such as this day in December 2018, during a meeting organised between acts 3 and 4 of the movement. Several sources have reported to Mediapart that the minister wanted the police to validate a reading grid of “the convergence of struggles between the ultra right and left” that would explain the violence. “He insisted: ‘Tell me the importance of ultra movements!’,” recalls an intelligence officer specialising in their follow-up. “Which is to misunderstand the nature and even the habits of these movements. To schematise: the ultras on the right are early risers while the ultras on the left are night owls. Some arrive in the demonstrations when the others leave.”

The members of these movements have in fact remained very much in the minority within the movement. “Christophe Castaner did not want to see that the violence was the work of simple Yellow Vests who thus manifested their anger, on let off steam against the symbols of power and wealth that are abound in Paris,” regrets a senior official. It was thus necessary that Laurent Nuñez, the prefect of Paris, and the bosses of the intelligence services join forces to explain to him, with figures in support, that one could not speak of a convergence of struggles between the two extremes. “Fortunately there were real technicians who mastered their subject,” sighs the intelligence officer.

Mediapart sought to know on what factual basis Christophe Castaner lean on in order to see a convergence of struggles. Here again, Place Beauvau sidestepped the question: “The implication of the ultra-right and ultra-left movements in the movement of the Yellow Vests is observed and studied by the intelligence services from the first weeks of the movement”. And while the intelligence services consider that the ultra-right and ultra-left were “almost non-existent in the processions”.

After seven months passed in Beauvau, six of which included a social crisis, the record of Christophe Castaner can be summarised in three letters: LBD. Introduced into the police arsenal by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was Minister of the Interior, the LBD caused many serious injuries among demonstrators. The weapon is involved in 294 of the 795 reports collected by the account Allô Place Beauvau, which lists on May 17th 286 people wounded in the head and 24 blinded. A figure higher than what was recorded in ten years of using this weapon and flashballs.

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The ministry says it has listed 2,200 injured demonstrators, including 10 “irreversible damage to the eye”. But while 227 investigations were entrusted to the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN), only 25 were closed and returned to the prosecutor’s office, which … has not responded at the moment. “The ability of a minister to support his troops was something he showed,” noted Frédéric Lagache, the General Delegate of the National Police Alliance, a right-wing trade union. “He was appointed in the middle of a mess … I do not know a lot of ministers who took the Interior to do nothing but policing for six months.”

To the point of multiplying the statements in blatant contradiction with the reality observed on the ground. “We must not reverse the burden of proof. I do not know any police officers or gendarmes who attack demonstrators,” he said to L’Est républicain. Supporting his troops was vital for the minister, if only to not be abandoned in return by the police force.

So on December 18th, he brings together the first three representative unions – Unité SGP-FO, Alliance, and UNSA Police – in order to act with them on the principle of “premium for Yellow Vests”. At the request of UNSA, which considered this idea to be “shameful”, the proposal was put in a drawer, but replaced by a “allocation of control” related to strenuousness, of about €120 in three instalments – only the first €40 was paid.

In the course of the days of mobilisation, the Minister made the apparatus of the police evolve, and assumed to create a “new doctrine” of maintaining order. In the program: mobile units, going “into contact” (DAR – “rapid action detachments”/“détachements action rapide”, then BRAVs – “violent action repression brigades”/“brigades de répression de l’action violente”). “On the topic of maintaining order, the minister has done his job: he made the doctrine evolve in order to better apprehend the breakers,” said the head of Alliance. With the Yellow Vests, “maintaining the distance” of the crowds was no longer possible, he believes. It was necessary to “go into contact” in order to “split the block” and detain them.

“We removed one part of the maintenance of order carried out by CRS and the gendarmes by entrusting it to the BRAV units, because they are more obedient, they do not respond to any doctrine,” said Anthony Caillé, from the CGT police. The latest demonstrations were the scene of numerous police brutalities, on the margins of police charges or arrests, which the base does not approve systematically. “Some are calling for a day off,” said a union official. “And we do not intervene during one of the saturday demos. But what will it give?”

“The question posed is the ability of political power in a democracy to regulate the police tool,” said the gendarmerie general Bertrand Cavallier, former commander of the National Training Center of Gendarmerie Forces of Saint-Astier to Mediapart. “We have many images that have shown an excessive use of force. Even if it is about marginal behaviors, the images mark opinion and pose a political problem which is that of an insufficient control of public force.”

According to the military, a doctrine such as maintaining order – “which is based on the first use of specialised forces, the measured use of force and the maintenance of distance”“cannot be revisable by the sole decision of a minister”. “The problems encountered, sometimes very serious, call for an in-depth reflection of elected representatives and bodies on the function of maintaining order from a global point of view, as well as on the conditions of its exercise,” he said.

Instead of this, Christophe Castaner rather focused, throughout the crisis of Yellow Vests, on the promotion of “new” order maintenance gadgets, already well known to some: the attached camera for LBD shooters, markers for water cannons, drones, and the motorised brigade – called BRAV-M – a revised version of the “voltigeurs” of Charles Pasqua. He also put on the street dog units and republican guards on horseback …

“It’s not him who decides. He just applies”

The Minister of the Interior also deployed all of his energy in order to challenge every step of the way the human toll of the repression. For several days, he denied the existence of a LBD shot towards the Yellow Vest Jérôme Rodrigues at Place de la Bastille. On May 1st he invented the “attack” on the Parisian hospital of La Pitié-Salpêtrière and the “aggression” against its medical staff. “He went back on his words, but he kept the facts, and it worked. Counter-powers didn’t play their role,” said an indignant Anthony Caillé.

Rather than conducting a “thorough reflection” on the issue of maintaining order, the government decided to reinforce the security arsenal for the umpteenth time, going against what Emmanuel Macron wrote in his book Revolution (Ed. XO, 2016): “It is well known that the reduction of freedoms for all, and the dignity of every citizen, has never brought about an increase in security. […] I consider that these illusions are deeply harmful in themselves and because they are ineffective,” wrote the candidate of En Marche, three years before recycling a draft law of the senatorial right-wing.

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In the National Assembly, it is obviously Christophe Castaner who charged himself with bringing the draft law known as “anti-breakers”, which caused division even in the ranks of the majority. Just before the committee discussion, the minister invited a handful of deputies in order to persuade them to join the government line. “During dessert, he decided to talk about Article 1 [which allowed searches and checks around the demonstrations – ed] while the whole conversation had remained in a general mode until then. It was repeated to him that this is not our text, that it is a project of the Senate and that we have no obligation to support it,” recalls a guest.

Before adding: “So he brought us a new version worthy of an amateur in law! He did not know what to do anymore, he told us that it is the will of the Prime Minister, that we must save him and thus save Article 1”. Another article – on the prohibition of demonstrations for individuals by prefectural decree – provoked strong criticism in the Chamber, where the Minister of the Interior embarked on a juridically very wobbly display, leaning on his student memories of law.

“From my first-year law courses at the University of Aix-en-Provence, with Professor Favoreu, I keep in my memory that if it is considered constitutional to be able to ban a demonstration for all people constituting a procession, then the fact of banning a person whose behaviour would be violent from demonstrating is the same thing,” he said. In the end, the Constitutional Council had a more rigorous reading of the law, since the incriminated article was finally criticised by the institution a few weeks later.

While the news of the last six months has focused on police issues and public liberties, the Minister of the Interior has also had the opportunity to illustrate two other topics in his portfolio: immigration and worship. For the former, he had less need to work on his papers, since the “asylum and immigration” law was finalised by his predecessor. Especially since contrary to what the government had thought, the French did not take much hold of this theme during the “grand debate”.

Christophe Castaner was therefore able to be content with presenting the work of his services: walking in the mud in Calais or Mayotte, facing the smugglers; receiving his Albanian counterpart in Beauvau to denounce abusive asylum claims; by signing an “anti-fraud” decree designed to facilitate the expulsion of “false” foreign minors. On this topic, like on all the others, all pretexts are good to flex the muscles. “He swallows everything his administration tells him,” believes a high official, a connoisseur of these questions. “He has no will nor capacity to take a minimum distance. At the limit, I preferred Collomb, he was clear, frontal, we knew who we were dealing with.”

At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, some have still not digested the fact that last March, the leadership of OFPRA (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons), responsible for granting asylum in France, escaped diplomats, under the pressure of Beauvau. And in particular Stéphane Bouillon, the chief of staff of Christophe Castaner. His kingpin, if not his spine on these topics. Presented as a Sarkozyist, this prefect, condemned several times by justice, had already been the right arm of Claude Gueant at the Ministry of the Interior from 2011 to 2012.

Despite the few occasions he had to express himself on migration issues, the tenant of Place Beauvau still found a way to create a new controversy by stating that “NGOs were able to be accomplices of the smugglers [in the Mediterranean]”, at the exit of a summit where Matteo Salvini had unfolded his anti-migrant speech. “I am sure that the NGOs are sincere,” said the head of LREM’s list in the European elections Nathalie Loiseau, the same person who had spoken about “asylum shopping” in the spring of 2018, when she was still a minister.

At a time when Emmanuel Macron presents himself as the rampart in Europe against the “populists” Salvini and Orbán, the statement of Christophe Castaner has turned out to be negative within the government. Admittedly, the President of the Republic had said something approaching a full controversy concerning Aquarius, criticising some humanitarian workers of “playing the game of smugglers”, but the term “accomplice” takes an additional step, returning to the Criminal Code and imputing criminal intent …

In short: excessive and out of season, even in the eyes of macronists.

The Minister of the Interior, in charge of worship, could have taken advantage of the strengthening of the 1905 law on secularism in order to distinguish himself. But again, he has not really twinkled. Like on the other perimeters of his portfolio, he follows the direction of the wind, which blows mostly at the Elysee. “It is not a madman who will restrict liberties, but he is not seen as someone very invested,” says a person close to the topic. “It’s not he who decides. He just applies”. One of his government colleagues remembers, in particular, a cabinet meeting during which the topic was discussed. “He clearly floundered, it was embarrassing …”

Manuel Jardinaud, Karl Laske, Mathilde Mathieu, Pascale Pascariello, Ellen Salvi, and Matthieu Suc – Mediapart

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