France's Emmanuel Macron under fire over response to security aide scandal

Macron (right) is flanked by Benalla as he leaves his home to play tennis in Le Touquet, France, in 2017.
Macron (right) is flanked by Benalla as he leaves his home to play tennis in Le Touquet, France, in 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - France's opposition lashed out at Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday (July 25) 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 on 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 under way 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 on 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.

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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 on 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.