Macron aide investigated for allegedly assaulting protesters
French president orders shake-up of office after bodyguard scandal, reports say
A high-ranking security officer for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has been officially put under investigation for allegedly assaulting protesters at a May Day demonstration.
Alexandre Benalla appeared before a magistrate on Sunday along with a member of Mr Macron’s centrist La Republique en Marche (LREM) party.
Both men were mis-en-examen, the equivalent of being indicted, for “gang violence” after the assaults on demonstrators.
Three high-ranking police officers who allegedly gave Mr Benalla video surveillance footage of the incidents also appeared before the judge. They were indicted for misappropriation of the images and violating professional secrecy.
The Elysée Palace, where Mr Benalla worked as one of Mr Macron’s inner circle as his security aide, has so far made no comment about the affair.
Presidential aides said Mr Benalla had been punished with a two-week suspension from his post in May but photos have emerged of him continuing to accompany the president on official visits. Le Monde also claimed that after he was suspended Mr Benalla was given the use of a luxurious grace-and-favour apartment near the Seine in central Paris reserved for Elysée workers, and provided with a car and chauffeur.
As the scandal gathered pace Benalla (26) was sacked on Friday and taken into police custody.
He was due to marry his fiancee, Myriam, at 11am on Saturday at the town hall of Issy-les-Moulineaux, a south-western suburb of Paris, but was forced to cancel the wedding. About 50 guests had been invited to a reception lunch at a restaurant in the chic 16th arrondissement of the French capital.
Mr Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were not attending but several of the presidential team were expected. Instead, the groom faced questioning by police while other officers searched his home.
According to Reuters, Mr Macron met several members of his government on Sunday to discuss the case, a source said.
“The president said the behaviour of Alexandre Benalla on May Day was unacceptable, shocking and that he could not allow the idea that someone in his entourage can be above the law,” the source said.
Mr Macron asked the secretary-general of the presidency, Alexis Kohler, to work on a reorganisation of his private office to prevent a similar event happening again, the source added.
The scandal broke last Wednesday when a video emerged of Mr Benalla hitting a demonstrator during the May 1st protest. He was wearing a riot police helmet with visor and a police armband but no uniform.
Mr Benalla, described as one of Mr Macron’s confidants, was reportedly attending the march as an observer with another security officer, Vincent Crase, who works for Mr Macron’s party.
Mr Benalla is seen on the video threatening, hitting and stamping on a young man who can be heard begging him to stop. Riot police had already hauled the young protester from the crowd and surrounded him when Mr Benalla is seen rushing over to attack the man while police look on. Mr Benalla then walked away.
Mr Crase, who was also wearing a police armband, is seen dragging and threatening a man.
After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, Le Monde newspaper posted a second video showing Mr Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during scuffles with protesters.
Two victims of the attacks have been identified and will be called to give evidence to the investigating judge.
Mr Benalla has also been charged with impersonating a police officer as well as complicity in the unauthorised use of surveillance footage.
Public and political outrage has been fuelled by footage showing nearby riot police officers appearing to watch Mr Benalla and Mr Crase carry out the violence without intervening.
The mounting scandal, including allegations of an attempted cover-up, is the biggest challenge to Mr Macron since he took power 18 months ago. The interior minister, Gerard Collomb, is facing calls to resign after claims he knew of the violence but said nothing.
He has since “severely condemned” the police officers’ behaviour and will appear before parliament on Monday to answer MPs’ questions about the affair. Some MPs have warned they will demand his resignation if he knew about the incident but kept it quiet.
The government has been forced to suspend a debate on a constitutional reform bill after MPs demanded to know who knew what and whether the assaults had been hushed up.
“If Macron doesn’t explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National).
The centre-right daily newspaper Le Figaro wrote in an editorial: “Why the devil did [MACRON]insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysée months ago?”
But LREM party spokesman Gabriel Attal said Mr Macron was in a no-win situation.
“If he speaks, we’d have indignant commentators saying his comments could influence the investigation,” Mr Attal said.
Mr Macron’s popularity ratings fell to a new low of 39 per cent last week, quashing hopes that the World Cup win would give him a boost.–Guardian