FILE - In this March 1, 2017 file picture centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, center, flanked by his bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, left, visits the Agriculture Fair in Paris. Benalla an aide to President Emmanuel Macron, charged with security, has been seen in a video wearing a police helmet and beating up a student protester on May Day, reigning criticism on Macron notably due to the light punishment _ a two-week suspension. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

Car, gun, perks: Scandal over Macron's ex-aide grips France

August 01, 2018 - 9:25 am

PARIS (AP) — The fancy car, the luxury address, the gun.

How and why a security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron obtained them are at the heart of a political scandal dragging in the leader who promised voters an exemplary government before his election less than 15 months ago.

France has been consumed by a political firestorm in the two weeks since Le Monde newspaper revealed that a man often at the president's side beat up a protester while observing May Day demonstrations with police.

The violence, captured on video, led to questions about Alexandre Benalla's role at the presidential Elysee Palace. It also fed Macron's critics, who contend that the former investment banker runs the country like a private business with a small band of underlings.

Shock turned to anger once the public learned that government officials knew about the beating the day after it happened and only suspended Benalla for two weeks instead of firing him and reporting him to judicial authorities.

The punishment was widely perceived as so inadequate that it raised troubling questions: Was there a cover-up? Does France have a parallel police system or a deep state running the country from the shadows?

Macron has dismissed the growing scandal as a "tempest in a teapot." Yet the public outrage is having an impact. A staff reorganization at the Elysee presidential palace is expected in the fall. Public opinion polls suggest the crisis already has cost the French leader popularity points.

The government survived two no-confidence votes Tuesday in the lower house of parliament, where Macron's centrist party has control. But the virulent debate that accompanied the votes made it clear France's political opposition isn't about to let the drama die.

Authorities have moved swiftly to catch up with the firestorm. Benalla lost his job two days after Le Monde identified him. Days later, an investigating judge handed him preliminary charges, along with three ranking police officers and an employee of Macron's party who accompanied Benalla to the May 1 protest.

Usually invisible officials who run France have squirmed under TV lights.

The leaders of the national police, a general, the administrators who run the Elysee Palace and the interior minister were among those called before two parliamentary commissions to explain Benalla's initial light punishment, and why the 26-year-old had a gun permit and perks like an Elysee car, which is typically reserved for top police brass.

Macron, 40, did not say a word about the beating until six days after the video of it went viral, when he pushed back.

"Alexandre Benalla never held the nuclear codes. Alexandre Benalla never lived in a 300-square-meter apartment....Alexandre Benalla was never my lover," the president said, addressing news reports and rumors about the allegedly favorable treatment given his aide.

Macron said he viewed Benalla's violence as a betrayal, but voiced appreciation for the work and loyalty of a young man from a disadvantaged neighborhood in Normandy who the president said he wouldn't forget "whatever happens."

Despite the disclosures, an enigma hangs over the aide who signed onto Macron's security detail during his presidential campaign and rose quickly to his inner circle.

Benalla was given the vague title of "charge de mission" that kept him off the official books. He often was seen at Macron's side on official outings. However, the unclear nature of his duties has helped fuel speculation about secret police. The presidential palace has a complex security unit of military gendarmes and police.

Benalla has said his job was to organize presidential visits.

"There is no parallel police," the secretary-general of Elysee Palace, Alexis Kohler, insisted before the Senate inquiry commission.

Long before the scandal broke, Macron, who created a political party from scratch, was accused by detractors of mounting an imperial presidency and living atop a citadel, cut off from French citizens with whom he had vowed to connect.

Two recent polls suggest the Benalla affair hasn't helped. An Ipsos firm poll, taken shortly after the scandal broke, showed the president with a 32 percent popularity rating — four points lower than the previous month. A poll by the Ifop firm also measured a four-point drop in Macron's popularity a week into the crisis.

Some feel the affair has had too much impact.

"We shouldn't paralyze the country," said art gallery owner Franck Le Feuvre, who is among those who think the scandal is a waste of time. Benalla "is just a guy who was too zealous, and no one dared intervene so as not to offend the big boss."

Benalla has said that he regretted his actions became "the source of multiple fantasies."

Government officials testified before parliamentary inquiry commissions that Benalla was accorded an Elysee-owned apartment along the Seine while serving his suspension and also continued to receive his salary, which was to be deducted from his vacation time.

They also revealed that while working at the presidential palace, Benalla received a permit for a Glock pistol on his fourth try. The permit was approved after a new request, on new grounds, was transmitted to police by Macron's office director, Patrick Strzoda.

The sleek car with a police light used by the security aide was needed for presidential motorcades, Strzoda explained.

The commander on the ground at the May protest where Benalla was seen acting violently testified that he thought Benalla, who as an observer was illegally equipped with a police arm band and radio, was an officer in civilian clothes.

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