Just a month ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was enjoying his country’s World Cup triumph in Russia. A week later, French newspaper Le Monde alleged that his bodyguard and personal aide, Alexandre Benalla, 26, impersonated a police officer and violently assaulted protesters at a rally on 1 May.
Benalla was belatedly dismissed, but President Macron now faces the fallout from l’affaire Benalla and a stream of allegations that have accompanied his status within the government – his first major scandal since assuming the presidency.
On 18 July, Le Monde analysed footage of the demonstrations in Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris. During the protest, security police, known as Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), intervened. A man wearing a helmet and police jacket – alleged to be Benalla – is first seen injuring a woman, then in another clip approaches security police subduing a protestor, beating him up ferociously. This extract of the video was shared by Le Monde as evidence that Macron’s aide was the man behind a police officer’s uniform.
What is Benalla’s link with Macron?
The polemic nature of l’affaire Benalla focuses on the security officer’s relationship with Macron himself. Benalla has been close to important figures in French politics before, such as Martine Aubry of the Socialist Party, ex-President François Hollande and Arnaud Montebourg – another prominent Socialist Party member who served as Minister of Industrial Renewal from 2012 2014.
Benalla was a familiar figure during Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign and would walk close to the candidates as part of his role in this security detail. It was no surprised when he was transferred to the Elysée’s security staff once Macron was elected.
However, there are several grey areas concerning Benalla’s actual role. His business cards claim that he is the deputy head of the president’s cabinet – whereas this job is in fact held by Rodrigue Furcy. Officially, Benalla is Emmanuel Macron’s security officer, but government officials revealed that he has stayed in an Elysée-owned apartment along the banks of the Seine.
They also revealed that Benalla was granted a permit for a Glock pistol after three unsuccessful requests, and has also received an Elysée car – a perk usually reserved for top police officers. During the riots in May, Benalla requested a day off to “observe police operations” from the Elysée – as is customary in France.
Others criticise Macron’s delay when taking action, waiting more than 36 hours to fire Mr Benalla once the footage at the march had been verified, and the lack of direct action taken by the Elysée. Benalla was instead given an initial two-week suspension without pay.
In response, Benalla’s lawyers made a statement saying that Benalla “was stunned by the media and political use” of his actions during the May Day protests and that the two individuals he tried to “control” were “particularly violent [and] virulent.”
Macron’s first political firestorm
The question remains: what is Alexandre Benalla’s actual role at the Elysée Palace? The violence captured on the video and the privileges granted to him by the President have fed Mr Macron’s critics – although the President’s approval rating has barely moved from 40 percent in the last six months.
Emmanuel Macron’s reaction to the scandal took time. He refused to speak to the press and only tweeted to express sympathy for Greece after the wildfires, which is quite unusual for a president who is usually friendly with social media.
After a week of intense news coverage, Macron finally took responsibility for the scandal at a gathering of lawmakers from his own party, En Marche: “If they are looking for the accountable person, he is in front of you. The only person responsible for this affair is me and me alone. I am the one who trusted Alexandre Benalla.”
However, opposition claimed that Macron tried to cover-up Alexandre Benalla because of their friendship. Indeed, photos began to surface showing the two men particularly close to one another; and as the rumours continued to swirl, Macron was forced to deny that Benalla was his lover – or that he had granted his aide access to France’s nuclear codes.
Minister Edouard Philippe defended Macron, saying that the l’affaire Benalla was not a “state scandal” and insisted that “nothing has been hidden” from the public. He remained as reserved as Emmanuel Macron, despite pressures from both left and right to explain what happened.
On 31 July, the Benalla scandal took center-stage in parliament. Lawmakers debated two votes of no-confidence in the government. The first, brought by Macron’s opponents on the right, won the support of 143 deputies – far short of the 289 majority that it would have required. The second, a proposal from the left, received even less support, with just 74 votes.
The parliament’s debate has kept the scandal in the spotlight. The story has dominated the French press and Macron’s popularity hit a low in the polls – according to a 24 July report by Ipsos for Le Point magazine, just 32 percent of respondents expressed their satisfaction with Macron, a drop of 4 percentage points on June. In July last year, 46 percent of respondents claimed they were satisfied with the president’s performance.
The President, in response has challenged his critics to “come and get him”. They may yet do just that.