President Emmanuel Macron has been plunged into the biggest scandal and political crisis since he took office by the violent behaviour of his "Monsieur Securité", Alexandre Benalla.
Benalla was on Friday fired from his position as Macron’s deputy chief of cabinet and arrested on suspicion of group violence, fraudulently acting as a policeman, using insignia reserved for public authorities and complicity in the misuse of video surveillance images.
Vincent Crase, a close associate of Benalla and a former security employee of the Élysée, was also detained.
Three investigations are under way – by the inspectorate general of the French police, the Paris tribunal and a parliamentary commission. They want to know how and why Benalla and Crase participated in police violence against demonstrators last May 1st, and why the Élysée fired only Crase and not Benalla when the palace was informed the following day.
About 100 demonstrators had responded to an invitation on Facebook from student groups and the far left party France Unbowed to a "militant aperitif" on the Place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter after the main May Day march.
Benalla had obtained permission to attend the demonstration on his day off, ostensibly to observe police anti-riot methods. Though he is only a reservist in the gendarmerie, he wore a helmet bearing the crest of the CRS riot police, and a police armband.
In a video posted on Facebook, Benalla locks his elbow around the neck of a young woman, then returns to beat an unarmed young man who is already lying on the ground. Crase can be seen alongside Benalla, participating in the assault.
On Wednesday night, Le Monde newspaper identified the assailant in the video as Benalla. The following morning, Bruno Roger-Petit, the president's spokesman, confirmed his identity and said he was punished by a two-week suspension without pay. Benalla was also demoted to responsibility for presidential events within the Élysée Palace. It was, Roger-Petit said, "the most severe punishment ever handed down" to an employee of Benalla's rank.
But after his suspension, Benalla nonetheless accompanied Macron to the Pantheon for the transfer of the remains of the stateswoman Simon Veil, and organised security for the presidential stand at the Bastille Day parade. He was on the bus that took the victorious French World Cup team down the Champs-Élysées on July 16th.
The Élysée used the revelation that Benalla had illegally obtained videosurveillance footage from the police prefecture as a pretence for sacking him on Friday. Three police officers who gave him the footage were also fired.
It appears the Élysée hunkered down in the hope that Benalla would not be identified. Under article 40 of the penal code, officials who learn of a crime or offence are required by law to report it to the prosecutor’s office.
The most serious aspect of the Benalla affair is the doubt it casts on Macron’s judgment. Benalla was part of the inner circle of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. He headed Macron’s security during the presidential campaign, when he was the only security official to have access to the Macrons’ home and the candidate’s sixth-floor office at campaign headquarters.
French newspapers were on Friday filled with embarrassing photographs of Benalla with the Macrons during holidays at Le Touquet and on the ski slopes of the Pyrenees.
Macron is surrounded by a small circle of aides who jokingly call themselves "the Mormons" because of their devotion to "the chief", Le Monde reported. Once an aide has won the president's trust, he or she is unsupervised. "Macron and his entourage took the Élysée by storm," a supporter of the president told Le Monde. "But they don't understand that you can't run the state like a commando raid."
Numerous reports have surfaced about Benalla's thuggish behaviour in the past. The former cabinet minister Arnaud Montebourg said he fired Benalla after a week because he caused a traffic accident and then tried to flee the scene.
The outcry in the National Assembly was so great that deputies abandoned discussion of constitutional reform to pursue the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the events of May 1st. Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of conservative party Les Républicains, suggested that the Élysée tried to cover up the affair. "One has the impression that Emmanuel Macron's entourage believe they're above the law," Wauquiez said.
Criticism was equally severe from Macron’s own camp. “I want to unambiguously condemn this inadmissible act which harms the image of the forces of order,” said Gérard Collomb, the interior minister and a close associate of the president.
Collomb is also under attack for having remained silent about Benalla’s behaviour. He is expected to be questioned by the parliamentary commission next week.