The Benalla scandal
French president Emmanuel Macron and his supporters breathed a sigh of relief as the “Benalla scandal” that had dominated the news stream since mid-July took a dip into the August doldrums. Mass media switched to summertime mode —heatwaves, sandy beaches, and the occasional thunderstorm with flash floods. But Emmanuel Macron’s glowing façade has flipped, revealing the underside of his invincible rise to power on the wings of an ex nihilo creation, La République en Marche (LREM), and the promise of a bright new world.
Alexandre Benalla, a 26 year-old bodyguard and Socialist party apparatchik who had accompanied Macron during the presidential campaign, was brought into the heart of the presidential palace where he was apparently granted exceptional power and privilege. Benalla’s fall from grace was precipitated by an article in the newspaper of reference, Le Monde: The “policeman” filmed as he beat a defenseless man that was down is in fact Alexandre Benalla the bearded strongman who had become the president’s shadow. The video of “police brutality” on May Day at the trendy Place de la Contrescarpe, a short hop from the Pantheon, had been circulating on social media. A militant of Mélenchon’s France Insoumise party had captured the incident on the margins of a spectacularly violent “celebration” where a contingent of more than a thousand black blocs joined by far left radicals had wreaked havoc.
Yes, but the man that was roughed up was not a fire-breathing anarchist. The roughneck who manhandled him was not a policeman. The incident occurred on May 1st. And it took six weeks before his identity was revealed to the public… by the press.
According to reliable sources
The presidential staff discovered or was informed on May 1st that the “police” violence was committed by Benalla and his sidekick Vincent Crase, a security guard at LREM headquarters. The information circulated to and from cabinet ministers, high ranking officers, political appointees, chiefs, heads, directors, and all the way to the president who was in Australia on official business. As they would subsequently affirm, “appropriate” measures were taken immediately. But the embarrassing incident was kept under wraps. Once the story broke in Le Monde it unleashed a cascade of information on the puzzling way the case had been handled, and the even more puzzling role of Alexandre Benalla within the presidential staff (known as the palace cabinet, as distinguished from the ministerial cabinet).
Airwaves and print media focused fulltime on the intriguing, fascinating, troubling disclosures. The smooth façade of the New Look president was torn aside, exposing an ancien régime style imbroglio. It should be kept in mind that the most likely winner of the 2016 presidential race, François Fillon, was sunk by a financial scandal that, artificially or sincerely, provoked voter indignation. Fillon was accused of paying his wife Penelope a parliamentary assistant’s salary for a fake job. The incriminating narrative was, “How can French people, who work so hard to earn a pittance, condone the payment of huge sums to Fillon’s wife who did nothing?” Emmanuel Macron profited richly from Fillon’s disgrace.
And now we discover, among other pearls, that Benalla was earning—after his fall from grace—€6 000 net per month. A very hefty salary in France. All we know of his background and skills is that he was raised in a working class neighborhood in Evreux (Normandy) by his schoolteacher mother who had emigrated from Morocco. He worked as a bodyguard for various Socialist politicians, was accused of misconduct and dismissed in 2012, went to Morocco where he created a short-lived private security company, and returned to serve as Macron’s bodyguard during the presidential campaign. At the president’s behest, Benalla was subsequently integrated into the palace staff, charged with coordination of presidential travel. Is that all?
When the scandal hit the news, all the president’s men and women went into soft & smooth mode. From the Interior Minister to the sweet young rooky MP, they cranked out the talking points: It’s a personal misstep by a single (in fact 2) collaborator, duly sanctioned, end of story. Benalla and Vincent Crase had been invited to attend the May Day demonstration as observers. Normal procedure. Outraged by the violence, and seeing the riot police overwhelmed, Benalla rushed in to make a citizen arrest. He did, admittedly, overstep the boundaries of his official function as a presidential assistant. Regretful. He and Crase were immediately sanctioned: two weeks’ suspension without pay, Benalla was downgraded, and they were warned that further misconduct would lead to dismissal. Now, in the light of additional irregularities, both men were fired. It is not une affaire d’Etat. And the fact that every opposition party from the far Left to the far Right was breathing fire just proved that they were trying to make political hay out of a peccadillo.
Nevertheless, Benalla and Crase were detained, questioned, and will be tried on charges of impersonating police officers, committing violence against unarmed citizens, carrying unlicensed weapons, unlawfully receiving CCTV footage, etc. Meanwhile, diligent investigative journalists and parliamentary commissions kept unearthing facts, sparks were flying, and the mystery thickened.
The overarching question is: why were these two men granted such inappropriate privileges and why was their misbehavior kept secret? In this day of CCTV, smartphones, video archives, and database algorithms, the party line came off as comical. Statements made under oath and on TV debates unraveled within seconds. The “immediate sanctions” turned out to be paid vacations. And no elected or appointed official ventured to explain why, after seeing the May Day video, no one in the presidential apparatus made the slightest attempt to get the full story. With all the investigative tools at their disposal, they didn’t even accidentally come across the additional evidence now pouring out as if from an open fire hydrant?
Crase, who wasn’t even an official observer on that fateful day, was carrying a handgun. Apparently without a permit. Other unlicensed weapons were reportedly discovered at LREM headquarters. And yet Crase didn’t lose his job and Benalla enjoyed new improved exceptional privileges. He did have to cancel his wedding scheduled for July 22nd because he was in police custody that day, but he was about to move into an 80 square-meter refurbished duplex apartment in the luxurious building on Quai Branly where François Mitterand had lodged his mistress and their love child. But, insisted Macronites, he didn’t actually move in to the apartment. He was given a car fitted up with a siren and flashing lights? Nothing awry, they explained, the car was integrated into presidential convoys. And besides, they would add indignantly, it isn’t a “voiture de fonction” it’s a “voiture de service.”
What exactly was Benalla’s role in the presidential palace apparatus? Bodyguard? Is a French president allowed to have a semi-private bodyguard in addition to, side by side with, or over and above his official security detail? Is Macron, who promised a squeaky clean see-through administration, surrounding himself with goons? A Pretorian guard? “Heavens no!” replies the president’s chef de cabinet. The co-chairperson of a senate investigation commission asks, then, why the gun permit was granted—she quotes from the application— on the grounds of his “police” functions? Before anyone had time to integrate that element, it was revealed by le Monde that Benalla was given a diplomatic passport at the end of the two-week’s “sanction.” No other employee of his rank enjoys such perks.
Rumors circulated, backed up by videos, that Alexandre Benalla was lording it over the policemen and gendarmes assigned to protect the president and first lady. Furthermore, he was heading up an ad hoc commission aimed at reorganizing those services. To this end, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves of the Gendarmerie but did he ever serve in the Gendarmerie let alone deserve such a high rank? And, as if that made the bodyguard usurpation more acceptable, we were told that he also accompanied Monsieur and Madame on private trips. If in fact he has a key to their villa in Touquet it is simply so that he could check it out before Emmanuel and Brigitte crossed the threshold. Oh? The French equivalent of the secret service doesn’t protect them on private junkets? Isn’t this a bit third worldy?
Monsieur Benalla himself, clean-shaven and looking more like a professor than a tough guy, gave interviews, backed up by his lawyer, and glaringly contradicted by video evidence: He had done nothing wrong. No violence, simply the normal technique for overcoming a culprit resisting arrest. The riot police were overwhelmed, he stepped in like a good citizen to give them a helping hand. President Macron, vainly attempting to make the whole thing vanish like a soap bubble, said Benalla’s personal misbehavior was a betrayal. But no one thought to ask why, in this case, he was given more favors than a dauphin after the betrayal.
The parliamentary session wound up with two no-confidence motions, easily defeated by the strong LREM majority. But they left a smudge. The president and loyal LREMs dismissed the Benalla affair as a tempest in a teapot. The opposition and a wide variety of commentators may differ on whether it is “une affaire d’Etat,” a total regime crisis or simply a brief period of turbulence, but no one believes it is a blip on the screen that will be forgotten when France wakes up in September, leaving the Wunderkind intact, to play to a full international house.
Comedy, tragedy, and hollow eloquence
On the comical side, there’s the exposé of Benalla’s Tinder account under the pseudonym Mars (Macron’s mocking nickname is Jupiter) where he proudly shows himself cheek by jowl with the president Himself. Even more comical is the subdued reaction of François Bayrou, the most sanctimonious politician in contemporary French history, whose Modem party joined the Macron government. Author of an ethical conduct bill passed during his brief stint as Justice Minister, Bayrou had to resign because of alleged misuse of European Parliament funds. In the eye of the Benalla storm, Bayrou congratulated the president for his finesse in handling this unfortunate incident, a personal misstep that does not involve the government and certainly not l’État.
The tragic reality is exemplified by the savage murders, in separate incidents, of three French men in the space of 10 days. Adrien Perez came to the aid of a friend assaulted in the parking lot of the nightclub on the outskirts of Grenoble where he was celebrating his 26th birthday. One of the assailants stabbed Adrien in the heart. Brothers Younes and Yanis El Habib, charged with murder, are awaiting trial in prison; a third suspect is under surveillance. In a town near Nancy, an unidentified man celebrating his 30th birthday responded to a call for help from a female friend who was being hassled. The aggressor lunged out of the bushes and slit his throat. The third murder took place in a bus at Porte de Clignancourt, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris: a 50 year-old passenger objected when a man got on the bus with a bicycle, which is prohibited. The bicycle rider slit the man’s throat.
While the president may suffer from a surfeit of bodyguards, defenseless citizens are exposed to a type of criminality that is foreign to French society. Candidate Macron’s promise to soothe rancor and discourage terrorist ambitions by opening job opportunities to the “excluded” was more appetizing to voters than François Fillon’s call to defeat radical Islam. In one of his rare comments on the scandal, president Macron, in his hallmark either-and-or formulation, said he was proud to have engaged Benalla, and betrayed by his misdeed. The president felt no need to explain why the betrayal was so richly rewarded.
The deference shown to the president’s man, Alexandre Benalla, by officials from ministerial level down to security details and including his own superiors in the presidential cabinet, remains to be explained.
What can explain the obstinate indulgence of investigating judge Anne Ihuellou, desperately searching for an insanity diagnosis that will protect Kobili Traoré from standing trial for the savage murder of Sarah Halimi in April 2017? One year ago, at the commemoration of the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of Parisian Jews, an eloquent Emmanuel Macron called for light to be shed on the anti-Semitic motivation of Sarah Halimi’s killer.
The separation of powers does not prevent officials from replacing a partial or incompetent judge. Where is the moral authority that illuminated Emmanuel Macron’s face that day?
Another light so quickly dimmed?