Macron under fire as security aide detained in assault inquiry

by Gaelle Geoffroy and Joseph Schmid
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Alexandre Benalla was head of security during Emmanual Macron's successful election campaign last year, before transferring to the presidential staff in May 2017

French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to curb the most damaging scandal of his presidency so far, on Friday fired a top security aide who has been taken into custody after videos emerged showing him strike a young man during a demonstration in Paris in May.

The Elysee Palace said that Alexandre Benalla, 26, would be dismissed after "new elements" emerged in the case, namely that he is suspected of unlawfully receiving police surveillance footage in a bid to clear his name.

A source close to the inquiry said that three police officers, including two high-ranking officials, have been suspended on suspicion of providing the footage to Benalla.

He is facing charges of violence by a public official, impersonating a police officer and complicity in unauthorised use of surveillance footage, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

Opposition lawmakers blocked proceedings in parliament on Friday to demand explanations, with some saying Interior Minister Gerard Collomb's job is on the line after press reports said he knew about Benalla's violence.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe stepped in calling on lawmakers to be "responsible" and end the "parliamentary obstruction".

Collomb, who has already confirmed that Benalla had "no right to intervene", will appear before a Senate panel for questioning on Tuesday.

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

- 'If a police officer did this...' -

The scandal erupted Wednesday when French daily Le Monde published a video taken by smartphone showing Benalla, wearing a riot police helmet and surrounded by officers, manhandling and striking a protester during a May 1 demonstration.

In a second video published by the newspaper late Thursday, Benalla -- who has never been a policeman -- is also seen violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.

"If a police officer did these kinds of things, he would have been suspended and would already have gone before a judge," David Le Bar, head of the SCPN union of police commissioners, told French daily Le Figaro.

It was not clear who informed Benalla's superiors of the incident, but a few days later he was suspended without pay for two weeks and transferred to an administrative role instead of organising security for Macron's trips.

But the incident was not reported to prosecutors.

Under French law, public officials who witness or learn of a crime must alert the authorities.

- 'Political crisis' -

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

And it appeared that Benalla was back on duty doing security work this week, travelling on the bus carrying France's World Cup-winning football team down the Champs Elysees for a victory parade.

Newspapers on Friday assailed the president's refusal to address the scandal despite repeatedly being questioned by journalists during a visit to southwest France on Thursday.

"By not immediately managing a disciplinary problem, Emmanuel Macron now faces a political crisis," wrote the rightwing Le Figaro daily -- which usually makes no secret of its admiration for the president.

Marine Le Pen, Macron's rival in last year's presidential election and head of the far-right National Rally, said the power Macron claims for himself "seems to throw off the values on which our Republic rests," adding that the incident also sheds "light on the temptation to be unofficial police."

- Poll ratings sink -

Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron had tweeted that "everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions".

Benalla was picked as head of security for Macron's successful election campaign last year, often just steps away from the candidate during public appearances.

He transferred to the presidential staff after his election in May 2017.

But the video and questions about how the assault case was handled have prompted unflattering accounts of Benalla's behaviour from other officials who have worked with him.

Arnaud Montebourg, a former minister in ex-president Francois Hollande's government, recalled dismissing Benalla from his service after just a week because of a "serious professional failure".

"He caused an accident while acting as my driver and tried to flee the scene," Montebourg told Le Monde on Thursday.

The scandal comes with Macron's popularity at a record low, defying analysts' expectations of a post-World Cup bump -- with an approval rating of just 39 percent in a BVA poll carried out on Wednesday and Thursday.

Alexandre Benalla was head of security during Emmanual Macron's successful election campaign last year, before transferring to the presidential staff in May 2017

Alexandre Benalla is seen in the driver's cabin (front left) of the bus carrying France's World Cup football team during a victory parade in Paris on Monday

The scandal erupted Wednesday when French daily Le Monde published a video taken by smartphone showing Benalla, wearing a riot police helmet and surrounded by officers, manhandling and striking a protester during a May 1 demonstration