The disgraced former bodyguard at the center of the biggest scandal of Emmanuel Macron’s young presidency appeared Wednesday before a Senate committee which will quiz him over his close ties to France’s maverick leader.
Alexandre Benalla made global headlines in July after Le Monde newspaper revealed him as the man filmed roughing up demonstrators at a May Day rally in Paris, posing as a police officer with a police helmet and armband.
One of Macron’s top security aides at the time, the 27-year-old said he was attending the demonstration as an observer and stepped in to help police bring the protests under control.
The footage of him beating a young man on the ground and pulling a woman by the hair caused widespread shock, which was compounded when it was revealed that Macron had known about the incident and did not report Benalla to the authorities.
Macron, who campaigned as a new, clean pair of hands in a political class stained by corruption, shrugged off the scandal as a “storm in a teacup”.
But despite his government surviving two no-confidence votes the affair was nonetheless seen as a blight on the record of the centrist and led to calls for greater checks on his powers.
Macron’s approval ratings, which stood at just 19 percent in a Kantar Sofres poll published Monday, also took a tumble over “Benallagate”.
A former nightclub bouncer who was fired after being identified in the video, Benalla was head of Macron’s security team during the 2017 campaign and remained part of the president’s inner circle after his win.
Charged with assault and impersonating a police officer he initially said he would ignore the summons to the Senate hearing but later acknowledged he was “compelled” by law to attend.
The senators’ questions are not expected to focus on the assault but rather delve into the inner workings of Macron’s hyper-centralized presidency.
“What we are interested in is the functioning of the state,” said Jean-Pierre Sueur, a Socialist Party member in charge of overseeing the committee’s work.
Three committee members from Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party have announced plans to boycott Wednesday’s hearing, accusing the Senate — which is controlled by the rightwing Republicans — of stepping on the toes of the judiciary in a deliberate ploy to get at the president.
In France, the task of guarding the president falls to elite units of the gendarmerie and police, raising questions over how Benalla clinched the job.
Under questioning in the Senate, Macron’s aides have denied he was part of the president’s security detail, insisting his role was mainly to “organize” security for events, despite the fact that he was regularly seen flanking Macron in public.
Macron’s refusal to answer questions about the video for several days saw him accused by critics of authoritarianism and arrogance.
Addressing LREM party members at the height of the affair, he accused Benalla of “betrayal” and said he took full responsibility for the affair.
“Let them come and get me,” he said, despite the fact that French presidents are immune from prosecution.