‘Stupid mistake’…’a storm in a teacup’: Macron and Benalla play down scandal

French president Emmanuel Macron and his ex-security chief Alexandre Benalla spoke out on Thursday about the ongoing scandal surrounding the presidency. Both tried to play down its importance.

'Stupid mistake'...'a storm in a teacup': Macron and Benalla play down scandal

French President Emmanuel Macron's former top security aide admitted he “made a mistake” in attending a demonstration where he was filmed roughing up May Day protesters, in an interview published Thursday.

But Alexandre Benalla also denounced what he said was a “desire to get at the president” over the scandal.

“I feel like I have done something really stupid. And have made a mistake… I should never have gone to that demonstration as an observer, then 
I should have held back” he told the newspaper Le Monde.

Le Monde had last week published smartphone videos of Benalla hitting one protester and violently wrestling another — while wearing a police helmet and armband — during the May 1 demonstration in Paris.

Revelations that top officials in Macron's office knew about the incident have sparked furious opposition claims of a cover-up in the worst scandal 
since the 40-year-old office took office last year.

Two parliamentary committees have been grilling top aides to Macron over the affair, with the president's chief of staff Alexis Kohler the latest to take the stand on Thursday.

Kohler, speaking before a Senate committee, acknowledged that officials' initial decision to punish Benalla with a two-week suspicion may “appear insufficient” but at the time it seemed “proportionate”.

Benalla was charged Sunday with assault and impersonating a police officer.

For his part Macron on Thursday continued to play down the significance of the scandal calling it “a storm in a tea cup” (tempete dans un verre d'eau).

“I said what I said to say, which was that I think it's a storm in a tea cup” the president told  AFP on a visit to the village of Campan in southwest France. 

Earlier this week Macron told MPs from his Republic on the Move (LREM) party “What happened on May 1 is terrible, serious, and for me it was a disappointment and a betrayal.”

“The only person responsible for this affair is me,” he said, in an angry intervention that appeared to take aim at parliament's grilling of his top aides as well as press coverage of the affair.

“If they're looking for someone to hold responsible, he's right in front of you. They can come and get me.” 

Macron resumed his offensive against the media Wednesday evening during a visit to Bagneres-de-Bigorre in the Pyrenees.

“You have in recent days said a lot of nonsense about salaries, privileges,” in the Benalla case, he told journalists.

“It was all fake,” Macron said.

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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.