Do you understand why ‘Benallagate’ is the biggest crisis Macron has faced?

The 'Benallagate' scandal shows no signs of going away but is the wayward act of one security official really the biggest crisis President Emmanuel Macron has faced since he came to power? Or just a storm in a tisane.

Do you understand why 'Benallagate' is the biggest crisis Macron has faced?
President Emmanuel Macron and his ex-security aide Alexandre Benalla. AFP

Up until now Macron's time as the French president has been fairly smooth, albeit with some difficult moments.

His controversial labour reforms were met with anger but the protests they provoked came and went with little impact.

The strikes over the president's contentious reforms of the rail service were forecast to bring France to a standstill and force the president to back down but despite lasting three months the industrial action eventually came to an end once summer arrived and his bill successfully passed through parliament with little fuss.

But the biggest crisis Macron has faced, if we believe all the talk around it, has been caused by the actions of his trusty 26-year-old security aide Alexandre Benalla during a protest on May 1st.

In video images now familiar Benalla, who was in charge of Macron's security during the 2017 election campaign, can be seen hitting a male protester and violently manhandling another woman.

The root of the problem is that while Benalla might have been wearing a police helmet and visor, he wasn't actually a policeman, he was only meant to be observing the French police in action. He admits his actions were a “personal initiative” aimed at “lending the police a hand”.

(Benalla right is seen grabbing the protester by the coat. AFP)

While the images are disturbing, given that the individuals don't seem to have given any cause to be treated violently, anyone who has seen how French riot police operate during street protests will perhaps not have been too surprised by the way the pair were roughed up.

As one former French MP pointed out “no one was killed nor was anyone seriously hurt”.

While no doubt Benalla is at fault for his robust intervention, why have the actions of one individual left the Elysée Palace in an apparent state of crisis and a president hiding out to avoid journalists questions for perhaps the first time since he was elected?

Some politicians in France have even compared the “Affaire Banallagate” to the Watergate scandal that rocked US politics and forced President Richard Nixon from power.

Le Monde newspaper has called it an “affaire d'etat” or a state scandal, suggesting the blame goes right to the top. The decision to finally sack Benalla on Friday has satisfied no one.

But is it really “a state scandal” as Le Monde who broke the story claims?  Or is it just a storm in a tisane, whipped up by the president's many political enemies.

Benallagate is the opportunity his opponents have been waiting for since he came to power and not many want to miss the chance to get him on the ropes.

Most French political analysts accept that comparisons between “Benallagate” and Watergate made by the far right's Marine Le Pen and far left's Jean-Luc Melenchon are exaggerating simply how Macron's enemies are desperately jumping on the scandal to pile pressure on a president whom they have failed to trouble.

“For the moment we are far from what the opposition are calling this – a conspiracy or state scandal,” political analyst Christophe Barbier told BFM TV.

But Macron can't simply blame all the scandal on the media and the desperate wish of his opponents to bring him down a peg.

L'Obs website points out that in the Benalla case an old American proverb that apparently came about after the Watergate scandal rings true.

“It's never the crime, it's always the cover up.”

After the video emerged the Elysée Palace immediately tried to give the impression that Benalla had been dealt with claiming he had been dished out the harshest punishment ever given to a member of the president's staff : a demotion and two week's suspension without pay.

Yet photos quickly emerged that showed Benalla still carrying out the security detail for Macron. Most notably he was present on the bus with the victorious French football team as it made its way down the Champs Elysées towards the Elysée Palace during the World Cup victory parade.

Government spokesman Christophe Castener even had the nerve to suggest Benalla was there to look after the player's bags. But no one believed him.

But the main question around the Elysée's apparent handling/covering up of the affair that has angered politicians is why, despite knowing about the video on May 2nd, the day after the incident, didn't they inform police given that the images potentially show a member of their staff committing crimes, from violence to imitating a police officer?

Did the Elysée Palace just think the rough treatment of protesters wasn't that bad or did they bank on no one being able to identify the man behind the police visor?

Or have they just misjudged how angry the images of a member of their staff violently wrestling with and punching two protesters will make the public?

At what point would they have felt the need to inform the police? If Benalla had really hurt someone? How badly would they have to have been hurt for someone at the Elysee to pick up the phone to the police? These are questions the French media and politicians are asking.

Whatever the Elysée's reasoning it now seems like a terrible decision, although it's still not clear who actually made that decision.

“Why the devil did Macron insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysee months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro wrote in an editorial Sunday. 

The news site L'Obs also pondered why Benalla had seemingly been given special treatment.

“At this level, we are beyond clemency, we border on either amateurism or complicity. The most amazing thing is that to cover for this man, the Elysée took a huge risk,” L'Obs wrote.

The leniency towards Benalla seems to go against Macron's demand that his staff, MPs and government ministers be exemplary.

Several ministers have been forced to step down as soon as they were any suggestions of wrongdoing. Macron even forced out the head of the armed services after he publicly criticized the defence budget.

And yet up until now Macron has remained largely silent on the issue, only admitting via a spokesperson that there was a dysfunction among the staff at the Elysee and changes would be made.

His silence has only kept the scandal rolling, experts say.

“He probably should have said something right away… and admitted the initial sanction was a mistake,” said Bruno Jeanbart, director of polling firm OpinionWay.

Things will eventually calm down as they always do, although it might take a resignation or a sacking or two before that happens, but the problem for Macron is that the damage has been done.

The scandal has taken a toll on his ratings, with 60 percent having an unfavourable opinion in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday, a record low for the 

“Emmanuel Macron will not find it easy to restore his authority after being bruised by this disastrous episode caused by a rank amateur,” rightwing 
newspaper Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial.

“No matter the administrative or judicial consequences of this affair, it will mark a before and after for Emmanuel Macron,” political analyst Bruno Cautres told AFP.


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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.