Heat rises on Macron as ‘Benallagate’ upends parliament

A dismissed security aide for French President Emmanuel Macron was to face a judge Sunday over his alleged assault of a protester, a scandal which has forced the government to suspend parliamentary proceedings.

Heat rises on Macron as 'Benallagate' upends parliament
Photo: AFP

So far Macron has refused to address the potential charges against Alexandre Benalla, 26, who was fired on Friday after a video emerged where he is seen beating up a young man during a May Day demonstration in Paris.

Benalla is seen wearing a police helmet and visor while assaulting the man alongside police, though Benalla is not a police officer and Macron's office has said he was only supposed to be accompanying the police as an observer.

An investigating judge opened an inquiry Sunday before auditioning Benalla and his associate Vincent Crase, an employee in Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party who also attended the protest.

Three police officers suspected of providing video surveillance footage to Benalla last week so he could try to clear his name will also be questioned Sunday.

The man struck by Benalla, along with a young woman whom Benalla violently wrestled to the ground during the scuffles with police — seen on a second video of the incident which emerged on Thursday — are also expected to testify at a later date.

– Deafening silence –

Investigative commissions have been created in both the National Assembly and the Senate, with some lawmakers accusing the government of trying to cover up a scandal which should have been reported to prosecutors immediately.

Since last Thursday they have effectively blocked the government's efforts to debate a constitutional reform bill promised by Macron during his election campaign.

It was not clear who informed Benalla's superiors of his assault, but Macron's office said last week that he had been suspended without pay for two weeks in early May and transferred from security affairs to an administrative role.

Yet Benalla has continued to be seen in Macron's security details since then.

“If Macron doesn't explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.

Laurent Wauquiez, the head of the rightwing Republicans party, accused the government of “trying to camouflage a matter of state”.

But an LREM spokesman, Gabriel Attal, said that if Macron addressed the issue now, “we'd have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry.”

Yet French daily Le Parisien reported that Macron organised a crisis meeting Saturday with his top advisers, including Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet.

Collomb will appear before MPs for questioning on Monday morning, after media reports suggested he knew about Benalla's assault but kept quiet.

– 'Macron defenseless' –

Benalla was taken into custody Friday after his dismissal, and is facing charges of violence by a public official, impersonating a police officer and complicity in unauthorised use of surveillance footage.

A source close to the inquiry said that Macron's cabinet chief, Patrick Strzoda, had been questioned by investigators on Thursday.

The affair is particularly embarrassing for Macron since he won the presidency with pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation's highest office.

Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysee workers.

He was also being provided with a car and driver, the paper reported.

“Macron defenceless,” the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.

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Top journalist grilled by French intelligence over Macron bodyguard

France's domestic intelligence service on Wednesday questioned a journalist who broke the story of a scandal that shook President Emmanuel Macron, the latest in a growing number of reporters to be quizzed in a trend that has disturbed press freedom activists.

Top journalist grilled by French intelligence over Macron bodyguard
A file photo of Le Monde journalist Ariane Chemin. Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP
Ariane Chemin, who works for the daily Le Monde, said she was questioned by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) for some 45 minutes in the presence of her lawyer after being summoned last week.
“I explained that I only did my job as a journalist,” she told AFP after the meeting.
She added that she had insisted on her right to protect her sources while carrying out work in the public interest based on a law dating to 1881.
“They asked me many questions on the manner in which I checked my information, which was an indirect way of asking me about my sources,” Chemin said.
Le Monde's managing director Louis Dreyfus was also questioned by the DGSI on Wednesday.
Chemin has written a series of articles over former presidential bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was fired last year after he was filmed roughing up a protester in one of the biggest scandals to shake Macron to date.
It was a July 18 article by Chemin that first reported that Benalla had beaten the May Day demonstrator while wearing a police helmet.
The summons stemmed in particular from articles about former air force officer Chokri Wakrim, the partner of Marie-Elodie Poitout, the ex-head of security at the prime minister's office.
Poitout resigned her post after media revelations that she and Wakrim had welcomed Benalla to their home in July but insisted it had only been a social affair.
The Elysee has been accused of covering up the affair by failing to report Benalla to the authorities.
'Only doing her job'
The secret service has already summoned seven reporters who published details over how French arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were being used in Yemen's civil war, sparking an outcry by press freedom 
The SNJ-CGT union called for a demonstration outside the headquarters of the DGSI on Wednesday “in support of those journalists summoned by the French state in violation of the law on press freedom.”
The association of Le Monde Reporters (SRM) said on their Twitter account that Chemin was simply “bringing to the attention of citizens information that was in the public interest and thus was only doing her job.”
But Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told the French Senate on Wednesday that the summons should “in no way be seen as an attempt at intimidation or a threat”.
She said the summons for Chemin was issued as part of a preliminary enquiry carried out under the supervision of the Paris prosecutor following a complaint by a special forces member that his identity had been revealed by the paper.
Senior journalists from 37 French media outlets, including Agence France-Presse, Le Figaro daily, France 2 TV and Mediapart, signed a statement supporting the journalists who were questioned over the Yemen controversy, saying they were “just doing their jobs”.
Disclose has pressed ahead with its reporting on the issue, saying on Tuesday that a shipment of munitions for French Caesar cannons would be loaded at a Mediterranean port onto a Saudi ship.