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France

Emmanuel Macron’s team closes ranks as ex-aide’s scandal takes toll on French leader

A top presidential security aide was filmed manhandling May Day protesters, and accusations of a cover-up have followed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 5:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 6:26am

Emmanuel Macron’s administration on Tuesday defended its handling of the scandal sparked by a top presidential security aide filmed manhandling May Day protesters, which has seen the French leader’s approval ratings sink to a record low.

In a stormy parliamentary session dominated by questions about Alexandre Benalla, who faces charges of assault and impersonating a police officer, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted that “nothing has been hidden” from the public.

Videos have emerged over the past week showing Benalla, 26, hitting a young man during the May 1 protest in Paris while wearing a riot officer’s helmet and police armband, and wrestling a woman to the ground.

Macron’s aides did not inform prosecutors about the incident, despite a law requiring public officials to alert authorities if laws are broken.

The scandal, called “Benallagate” in France, has prompted furious opposition claims of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.

Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May and transferred to an administrative role – though he was repeatedly seen in Macron’s security details until he was finally fired on Friday.

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“I understand that some people might wonder if the decision taken was sufficient,” Philippe said of Benalla’s punishment, admitting that “a republic that strives to be exemplary is not always perfect”.

Macron’s office director, Patrick Strzoda, appearing before a National Assembly committee investigating the case, acknowledged that he imposed Benalla’s suspension as well as a “demotion” that involved stripping him of responsibility for some elements of the president’s security.

But he said that since no complaint was filed against Benalla, and that an analysis by the national police oversight body had not flagged any irregularities, he did not see any need to inform prosecutors.

“I determined that at my level I did not have enough elements to justify” such a move, Strzoda told lawmakers.

Macron told lawmakers in his party on Tuesday that he was “in charge” in the scandal, and that he considered the acts “a betrayal”.

“If they want to know who’s in charge, he is standing before you... I answer to the French people,” said Macron – who had been criticised by the opposition for his silence in the affair – according to lawmakers present at a gathering marking the end of parliamentary session.

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“If they are looking for the person in charge, the only person, it’s me and me alone,” Macron said.

“I am the one who trusted Alexandre Benalla,” he said, according to lawmakers, adding that Benalla had been a supporter during his campaign but that he felt “the acts on May 1st were like a disappointment or betrayal”.

Macron has called off Wednesday’s scheduled appearance along the Tour de France route in southern France, though his office insists the move was unrelated to the scandal.

His silence appears to have dented his ratings, with 60 per cent reporting an unfavourable opinion in an Ipsos poll published on Tuesday – a record low for the 40-year-old centrist.

An Elabe poll found 80 per cent were “shocked” by the scandal, with 75 per cent urging Macron to break his silence.

“The problem isn’t Alexandre Benalla’s misconduct but rather the structure that made it possible,” said Bruno Cautres, a political scientist in Paris.

“No matter the administrative or judicial consequences of this affair, it will mark a before and after for Emmanuel Macron.”