France's ambitious interior boss defiant over Champions League fiasco

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France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin put himself in the front line of defending the actions of Paris police at the Champions League final, remaining impervious to criticism not just from the UK but also reportedly President Emmanuel Macron.

Darmanin, a 39-year-old ambitious right-winger has blamed the chaos that marred Saturday's final in Paris between Liverpool and Real Madrid on English fans who he said arrived at the venue in their thousands without tickets or with fake passes.

He defended the police during an inquisition before a French Senate committee on Wednesday, while acknowledging the situation could have been handled better and apologising for the "disproportionate" use of tear gas.

Thousands of fans were unable to access the match on Saturday despite having genuine tickets, in scenes of mayhem that saw the French police use tear gas at close range even against children.

The chaos sparked anger in Britain, a political uproar in France a fortnight ahead of legislative elections, and raised questions about the capability of the French capital to host the Olympics in 2024.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called on Darmanin to resign while left-wing daily Liberation depicted him as the serial liar Pinocchio on its front page.

But Darmanin happily put himself in the firing line, insisting in front of the Senate committee that some 35,000 Liverpool fans had shown up at the Stade de France without tickets or with fake ones that had in some cases been reproduced hundreds of times.

Tensions with Britain are nothing new to the minister, who has repeatedly sparred with British counterpart Priti Patel over the crossings across the English Channel made by migrants.

"A tentative start of a mea culpa. But no real change in substance... Darmanin did not shift," said the Le Monde daily after the hearing.

- 'Full support'? -

Government spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire said on Wednesday that Darmanin enjoyed the "full support" of Macron. But French press reports have suggested that the president was privately furious over the damage to France's image.

The Canard Enchaine satirical weekly said that Macron had told Darmanin that what happened was a "heavy blow for France".

Another source close to Macron told Le Monde: "When we screw up we need to say that we have screwed up."

But the criticism has been water off a duck's back for Darmanin, who survived last month's reshuffle and makes no secret of the importance he attaches to good relations with police.

At a press conference at the sports ministry on Monday to discuss the fiasco, Darmanin determinedly took the lead in answering questions over new Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera who had handled an earlier radio interview with aplomb.

He became France's youngest interior minister when appointed by Macron in 2020, taking on a post that once helped propel his one time mentor Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency.

The son of a bar owner and a mother who worked as a cleaner at France's central bank, Darmanin cut his political teeth in Sarkozy's 2007-2012 administration and joined Macron's centrist government when the former investment banker won the presidency in 2017.

His rapid rise was shadowed by a complaint filed in 2017 from a woman, Sophie Patterson-Spatz, who alleged he raped her in 2009 after she sought his help to have a criminal record expunged.

However Darmanin has denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors in January asked for the case to be dropped.

- 'Great confidence' -

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.

It was Darmanin who the Elysee chose to represent the government in a fractious TV debate before April's presidential election against Jordan Bardella, Le Pen's de-facto number two and rising star of the far right.

But his intransigence has caused discomfort within France, where some accuse him of prioritising the projection of a simple message over acknowledging the truth.

Darmanin recited figures about the final supplied by Paris police chief Didier Lallement without checking them, said a police source, who asked not to be named, "And now he looks like an idiot."

An MP from the ruling party, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said his confidence recalled that of Sarkozy who has rarely been fazed by criticism or setbacks.

"But it is when he is in this phase of having great confidence that he runs the most risks," said the MP.


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