Macron Dismisses Bodyguard Scandal As ‘Storm In A Teacup’

In this video grab taken on July 19, 2018 from footage filmed on May 1, 2018 shows a man identified as Elysee Chief Security Officer Alexandre Benalla wearing a police visor as he drags away a demonstrator during May 1 protests in Paris.  Tahar Bouhafs / AFP

 

French President, Emmanuel Macron, has dismissed the scandal surrounding a top security aide who roughed up protesters as a “storm in a teacup”, as furious criticism from his opponents showed no sign of abating.

The former bodyguard in question, 26-year-old Alexandre Benalla, denounced what he said was a “desire to get at the president” over the scandal, the most damaging since Macron took office over a year ago.

Benalla, who faces criminal charges after videos emerged of him manhandling May Day demonstrators in Paris while wearing a police helmet and armband, admitted however that he had “made a mistake”.

“I feel like I have done something really stupid. And have made a mistake,” Benalla, who has been charged with assault and impersonating a police officer, told Le Monde newspaper.

“I should never have gone to that demonstration as an observer, then I should have held back,” he said of the incident, in which he was filmed hitting a protester and wrestling another to the ground.

Revelations that top officials in Macron’s office knew about the incident but did not report Benalla to prosecutors have prompted accusations of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.

The centrist president sought to downplay the affair on Thursday.

“I’ve said what I had to say, which is that I think it’s a storm in a teacup,” he told AFP on a visit to the village of Campan in southwest France.

‘Monarchical leanings’ 

Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans, who like many opponents has charged Macron with displaying arrogance in his response, accused the president of “monarchical leanings”.

“We’re facing a very serious incident — the president must explain himself before the people, he cannot do it with the disdain and provocation with which he has done so thus far,” Jacob told Franceinfo radio.

Opposition lawmakers have repeatedly called on Macron to address the nation over the affair.

After days of silence, Macron gave a defiant speech to members of his LREM party on Tuesday which appeared to take aim at parliament’s relentless grilling of his aides over the scandal.

“The only person responsible for this affair is me,” he said, while describing Benalla’s actions as “a disappointment and a betrayal”.

“If they’re looking for someone to hold responsible, he’s right in front of you. They can come and get me.”

On Wednesday, he accused his opponents of “disproportionate actions”, adding he remained proud to have hired former bouncer Benalla as he was a “devoted” employee who had “taken an unusual path” professionally.

Two parliamentary committees have been grilling top Macron aides, with the president’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler the latest to take the stand before the Senate on Thursday.

Kohler acknowledged that officials’ initial decision to punish Benalla with a two-week suspension may “appear insufficient” but at the time it seemed “proportionate”.

Macron’s office director Patrick Strzoda told lawmakers Tuesday that he decided there were not enough elements to justify turning Benalla over to prosecutors, not least because no criminal complaint had been filed against him.

The opposition Republicans are set to file a vote of confidence in the government on Friday — a largely symbolic move, since Macron’s centrists hold a strong majority in parliament.

Macron’s approval ratings, already low, appear to have taken a further hit from the scandal, with a record 60 percent reporting an unfavourable opinion of him in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday.

Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, an LREM security agent who was also at the scene, has also been charged over the affair, as have three police officers accused of giving Benalla surveillance footage so he could mount a defence.

AFP

Macron Under Fire Over Response To Security Aide Scandal

In this video grab taken on July 19, 2018 from footage filmed on May 1, 2018 shows a man identified as Elysee Chief Security Officer Alexandre Benalla wearing a police visor as he drags away a demonstrator during May 1 protests in Paris.  Tahar Bouhafs / AFP

 

France’s opposition lashed out at Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday over his response to revelations that his top security aide roughed up protesters, accusing the president of badly mishandling the worst scandal since he took office.

After days of silence, Macron finally spoke out late Tuesday over the debacle surrounding disgraced ex-bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who faces criminal charges after he was filmed scuffling with May Day protesters in Paris while wearing a police helmet.

“What happened on May 1 is terrible, serious, and for me it was a disappointment and a betrayal,” Macron told lawmakers from his Republic on the Move (LREM) party.

“The only person responsible for this affair is me,” he said, in an angry intervention that appeared to take aim at parliament’s grilling of his top aides as well as press coverage of the affair.

“If they’re looking for someone to hold responsible, he’s right in front of you. They can come and get me.”

Many politicians blasted Macron’s apparent criticism of parliamentary interrogation of his staff, with far-left MP Alexis Corbiere accusing him of “swaggering” and Gerard Larcher of the rightwing Republicans describing the response as one of “amateurism and panic”.

Le Monde newspaper, which broke the story by publishing videos of Benalla hitting one protester and wrestling another, said Macron had spoken “before a loyal audience, where there was no possibility of contradicting him”.

It deplored Macron’s attack on media coverage which the president said was proof the press “no longer looks for the truth” — comments more often heard from US President Donald Trump than the centrist French leader.

Lawmakers say serious unanswered questions remain about “Benallagate”, and are increasingly calling for Macron to address the nation.

Benalla, 26, was not sacked or charged until the scandal broke last week — despite senior officials knowing about the May Day incident — and he reportedly enjoyed perks unusual for someone of his rank.

A police search of his office was underway on Wednesday, according to the presidency.

The ‘end of innocence’? 

Socialist leader Olivier Faure said the scandal marked a turning point for the Macron presidency.

“It’s the end of innocence,” he said. “We can no longer look at Emmanuel Macron and his majority as if they haven’t lied, betrayed and hidden the truth.”

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, promising “deep changes”, said the administration would deal with lessons from the scandal in September after the summer break, “once it has been clearly established what went wrong”.

Benalla was given a two-week suspension days after the incident and removed from organising the president’s security during his trips.

But the alleged assault was not reported to prosecutors, sparking allegations of a cover-up.

It has also emerged that continued to draw a salary during his supposedly unpaid suspension and will have to have his salary docked now that he has left.

Macron’s office director Patrick Strzoda told lawmakers Tuesday that he decided there were not enough elements to justify turning Benalla over to prosecutors, not least because no criminal complaint had been filed against him.

Macron’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler will appear before the Senate committee on Thursday.

The scandal comes 14 months after Macron was elected vowing to restore integrity to French politics, and polls suggest the 40-year-old’s poll ratings — already low — have taken a further hit.

An Ipsos poll published Tuesday found that a record 60 per cent reported an unfavourable opinion of Macron.

Benalla has been charged with assault and impersonating a police officer, while also illegally receiving police surveillance footage in a bid to claim his actions were justified.

Vincent Crase, an associate and security agent employed by the LREM who was also at the scene, has also been charged, as have three police officers.

AFP

Macron’s Security Aide Facing Charges Over Assault

In this video grab taken on July 19, 2018 from footage filmed on May 1, 2018 shows a man identified as Elysee Chief Security Officer Alexandre Benalla wearing a police visor as he drags away a demonstrator during May 1 protests in Paris. Tahar Bouhafs / AFP

 

A former top security aide for French President Emmanuel Macron was brought before a judge Sunday after videos emerged of him striking a young man during a demonstration, a scandal which has derailed parliamentary proceedings as lawmakers press the government for explanations.

Alexandre Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after footage was released of him hitting the man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up a May Day protest in Paris.

Benalla, who was wearing a police helmet with visor as well as a police armband, is facing charges of violence by a public official, impersonating a police officer and complicity in unauthorised use of surveillance footage.

Three police officers, including two high-ranking officials, have been suspended on suspicion they illegally gave Benalla video surveillance footage last week so he could try to clear his name.

His associate Vincent Crase, an employee in Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party who also attended the protest, is also facing charges.

The scandal has become the most damaging for Macron since his election last year on pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office in order to ensure a “republic of responsibility”.

In response to the outcry sparked by the videos, Macron’s office said Benalla was punished in May with a two-week suspension and transferred from security duties to an administrative role.

Yet he has continued to be seen in Macron’s security details since then, while opposition parties accuse the president of covering up an assault that should have been reported to prosecutors.

“Why the devil did he insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysee months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro wrote in an editorial Sunday.

Parliament revolt 

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb is to appear before parliament on Monday morning, with some MPs warning they will demand his resignation if he knew about the incident but did not say anything.

After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, French daily Le Monde posted a second video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.

Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron had tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions”.

In a third video, published by the Mediapart investigative news site, police officers are seen kicking and punching the young man even after he has been immobilised on the sidewalk.

The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who have announced commission of inquiry in both the National Assembly and Senate.

“If Macron doesn’t explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.

But LREM spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the president’s silence, saying that if Macron spoke now, “we’d have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry.”

 ‘Macron defenceless’ 

Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysee workers.

He was also being provided with a car and driver, the paper said.

Investigators have searched Benalla’s home in the Paris suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, where a city hall official said Benalla was supposed to have gotten married on Saturday.

The man and woman seen in the video have been identified and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.

The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump.

“Macron defenceless,” the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.

AFP