Alexandre Benalla — the French presidential bodyguard is at the centre of the biggest scandal yet of Emmanuel Macron's presidency after being caught on camera striking a protester and violently manhandling another woman during a Paris protest on May 1st as French police looked on.
On Monday his lawyers came to his defence for the first time.
Alexandre Benalla “had no vocation to intervene personally in these operations,” the lawyers said.
“However, after witnessing the actions of two particularly troublesome individuals and the fact the operational capacities of the police officers on the scene had been exceeded, Mr. Benalla took the initiative to lend a hand to the police by helping to control these people,” the lawyers added.
This personal initiative… is obviously being used to tarnish the president in circumstances that defy comprehension,” his lawyers said in a statement claiming his acts were being were being exploited for “media and political ends”.
The statement from Benalla's lawyer came after France's interior minister and the Paris police chief defended their responses to a video showing the security aide hitting a May Day protester.
Speaking before a parliamentary commission, both officials said they had learned of the video circulating on social media on May 2, the day after
Alexandre Benalla beat a young man during a police operation to clear protesters from a Paris square.
“The president's office director (Patrick Strzoda) called me to ask for any news about the Benalla case — I didn't know what he was talking about,” police chief Michel Delpuech told lawmakers.
Asked why he did not report the incident to prosecutors after watching the video, which shows Benalla striking the man at least twice while riot police officers look on, Delpuech said he considered it was up to Macron's office to respond.
But he denounced “unacceptable abuses by individuals” and “cronyism”, apparently a reference to three police officers accused of providing Benalla with surveillance footage so he could try to mount his defence.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb also said it was up to Benalla's superiors in Macron's office either to inform prosecutors or impose any punishment.
In several videos which have emerged of the police operation, Benalla is seen wearing a police helmet and armband, and Collomb told lawmakers he was also equipped with a police radio.
He said investigators did not know how Benalla obtained the equipment, since he was supposed to be only observing the operation accompanied by an officer.
Delpuech added that investigators were also checking if Benalla and an associate at the scene, Vincent Crase, were armed, confirming that a weapons permit held by Benalla during Macron's presidential campaign had expired.
Both officials said they had not been informed that Benalla and Crase would be attending the protest.
“I was surprised, astonished even, to discover Benalla in the command room” the night of May 1, Delpuech said.
“I was shaking people's hands, and when I came to him I said, 'You're here?' And he answered, 'I was out in the field'.”
Opposition lawmakers have seized on the affair, with some accusing the government of trying to cover up the alleged violence committed by Benalla and Crase, a security agent employed by Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party.
Benalla was Macron's closest bodyguard during his campaign, before transferring to the president's security detail in May 2017.
Despite mounting pressure Macron has yet to speak publicly on “Benallagate”, which is swiftly becoming the most damaging scandal since he won the presidency last year promising to restore integrity to government.
He has called off Wednesday's scheduled appearance at the Tour de France cycling race, though aides insist the cancellation was unrelated to the case.
Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after newspaper Le Monde published a smartphone video showing him hitting a man at the protest.
Le Monde later posted another video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles.
The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, according to a source close to the inquiry.
Both Benalla and Crase were charged Sunday with assault, while Benalla is also charged with impersonating a police officer.
Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May, but it was not clear why prosecutors were not informed of the video and alleged violence.
“In my opinion it's up to those responsible in their administrations, closest to the facts, to gather any elements which would justify informing prosecutors of an infraction,” Collomb said.
Lawmakers in both houses of parliament are investigating the affair, with Macron's chief of staff Alexis Kohler set to appear at the Senate on Thursday.
The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, and on Monday parliament said the debate would be postponed until September at the earliest.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that Benalla had been living free in a luxurious mansion reserved for presidential staff, and had been given a car and driver.
And while the presidency said Benalla had been transferred to an administrative role after the incident, he has nonetheless been seen several times since then in Macron's security detail.