By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) - France's Emmanuel Macron faced mounting questions about the durability of his government on Wednesday after the resignation of a third minister in five weeks, testing the political newcomer's ability to hold an administration together.
Gerard Collomb, 71, a former Socialist Party stalwart who backed Macron early in his presidential bid and was seen as a mentor, resigned after a public battle of wills with 40-year-old Macron.
The loss of a close ally and one of the most senior ministers in the government is a heavy blow for the president, whose popularity has fallen sharply in opinion polls and is struggling to inject new energy into his reform drive.
In refusing to toe the line after Macron at first rejected his resignation, Collomb ended up exposing the president's relative political inexperience, commentators said.
"This is a challenge to Macron's Jupiterian way of trying to run the presidency," said Jonathan Fenby, author of The History of Modern France, referring to Macron's early casting of himself as a Jupiter-like figure - one who sits above the political fray and hands down messages like the Roman god of gods.
As Collomb formally handed his portfolio to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at an icy ceremony on Wednesday, tensions were barely disguised.
Collomb's subdued demeanour appeared to reflect the poor relations that have existed since a scandal erupted in July over an Elysee Palace bodyguard caught on camera beating protesters. The Elysee's slow response tainted Macron's transparent image.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told heckling lawmakers on Wednesday that there was no crisis. But Macron and Philippe now face a delicate balancing act as they search for a new interior minister from a political party without deep roots, one formed around Macron's start-up presidential campaign.
The president has already lost his popular environment minister and the sports minister, though Collomb's problems mainly lay with Macron's seeming arrogance, while policy differences are at the heart of the departure of the two other ministers.
"He doesn't have the strength in depth that an established party would have," said Fenby.
"LACK OF HUMILITY"
While a full-on government collapse is unlikely, the drip-drip of resignations has hindered Macron's ability to push ahead with reforms on a tight schedule. Macron himself does not face a re-election challenge until 2022.
Collomb, who had spoken of a "lack of humility" inside Macron's team, first announced his desire to resign in a magazine interview two weeks ago, implying he would step down in 2019 to run as mayor of Lyon after the European elections.
Opponents were quick to berate Macron for trying to hold on to a lame-duck minister who has to preside over one of France's most sensitive portfolios. The country is still reeling from militant attacks that have killed some 240 people since 2015.
"Things have badly deteriorated," Collomb said on Wednesday, standing alongside Philippe and referring to conditions in the rundown suburbs of France's biggest cities.
"Today, it's not the rule of the Republic that prevails but rather of drug traffickers and radical Islamists."
Macron's advisers made clear the timing of Collomb's departure would be on their terms. But on Tuesday, Collomb insisted on quitting his post, backing Macron into a corner and forcing him to agree.
"If (Collomb) wanted to show ... that the head of state had lost his control of events and that he lacked the experience and indispensable reflexes needed for his job, the ex-minister could not have done it any better," Le Monde wrote in an editorial.
(Editing by Luke Baker, Richard Balmforth)