French President Emmanuel Macron is facing a growing crisis as investigators detained one of his top security aides after a video emerged of him beating a protester in May. A parliamentary inquiry has been set up to examine allegations of a cover-up.
A judicial official said on Friday that Alexandre Benalla, the head of Macron’s personal security detail, had been detained for questioning on numerous counts, including violence by a public servant and misusing police insignia.
This came after French daily Le Monde on Wednesday published a video of Benalla wearing a police riot helmet and beating a man who begs him to stop during a May 1 demonstration. The next day, the newspaper published another video showing Benalla violently dragging a woman away from the protest and wrestling her to the ground.
The presidential office, the Élysée Palace, announced on Friday that Benalla would be sacked on the grounds that he is suspected of unlawfully obtaining police video footage of the incident. The three policemen from whom he procured the footage were also taken into custody when this came to light, accused of “misappropriation of images from a video surveillance system” and “violation of professional secrets”, according to the prosecutor’s office.
But this has not silenced angry questions as to why it took two and a half months – that is to say, until Thursday, the day after Le Monde published the first video – for the presidency to inform prosecutors of the violent incident; why Benalla stayed in his job throughout this period; and whether these unanswered questions suggest an official cover-up.
FRANCE 24’S MARC PERELMAN GIVES HIS ANALYSIS
‘This is not going to go away’
A parliamentary committee began looking at these questions on Friday evening. In the meantime, the controversy “is not going to go away”, said FRANCE 24’s in-house French politics specialist Marc Perelman.
“The Benalla affair is very damaging for Macron because it gives the French people the feelingthat we didn’t know the truth,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris.
“We finally have the truth, but only thanks to Le Monde’s investigation – not thanks to Macron or the Élysée Palace,” he told FRANCE 24.
The president’s political adversaries were more trenchant. “It’s an illusion to think you can put a cover on things when you live in a democratic country,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left party France Unbowed, the biggest parliamentary opponent of Macron’s bloc Republic On the Move. “In the end, everything is known.”
“Why did [Macron] protect this person? Does he head up a parallel police force?” Eric Ciotti, a senior member of the right-wing Républicans party, wrote on Twitter.
Wauquiez, the head of Ciotti’s party, accused the government of “trying to camouflage a matter of state” and said Macron should clarify the matter to the French people.
‘Don’t see how interior minister could avoid resigning’
Macron’s spokesman said on Thursday that the security aide had been authorised to join the police “as an observer” on May Day, his day off, and that as punishment for his actions, he had been suspended for two weeks and transferred to a desk job a few days after the incident.
“It seems that [interior minister] Gérard Collomb told the Élysée Palace after learning about it on May 2, immediately after, and that this is when the two-week suspension was decided upon,” said Perelman. Collomb has not denied this allegation, also made in numerous French press reports. The country’s law stipulates that public officials who learn of a crime must inform the judicial authorities.
“The problem is that Benalla acted as a policeman on May 1, when he is not a policeman, and he obtained this footage from the police,” Perelman continued. “And who is the head of the police? Gérard Collomb.”
“I don’t see how Collomb could avoid resigning,” Cautrès added.
Whether or not the interior minister is still in office by then, the parliamentary inquiry will focus on his testimony this Monday.
Move to former home of Mitterand’s mistress
Perhaps even more damagingly for Macron and his embattled interior minister, Benalla does not seem to have been doing his desk-work penance the last few weeks: he has been spotted on the ground with police at several high-profile events, including the jubilant welcoming home of France’s World Cup-winning football team.
His name was also heading the list of security joining Macron and his wife Brigitte on their holiday at the French president’s official summer house, the Fort de Brégançon, a small island off the French Mediterranean coast.
Not only that, on July 9, Macron’s security aide was granted the right to live in a building owned by the presidential office on Quai Branly in the capital’s chic 7th arrondissement. As it happens, this was the same address where President François Mitterand’s mistress and their child resided during his two terms from 1981 to 1995, with the Élysée Palace assiduously covering up the arrangement at the taxpayers’ expense.
For his part, Macron has remained silent about his security aide. Unveiling a new series of stamps in France’s rural Dordogne region on Thursday, he told journalists that “only you are interested” in the questions concerning the Benalla affair.
When asked whether the controversy taints his ideal of a French Republic that upholds exemplary moral standards, the self-declared “Jupiterian” president responded: “The Republic is unalterable.”
As for Macron’s young security aide, he was due to be married on Saturday in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he resided up until the official record indicates he relocated to the Quai Branly residence.
But seeing as his detention was prolonged by 24 hours on Saturday, it looks as though the wedding celebration will have to wait.
Text by Tom WHEELDON