PARIS — The footage is striking.
In the same scenic Paris square that the writer Ernest Hemingway once called home, a protest erupted during France’s annual May Day holiday. This part, at least, is no surprise: May 1 is International Workers’ Day, typically marked by massive labor demonstrations that can bring the city to a standstill. That was especially the case this year, in the midst of President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping market reforms.
But what was a surprise is the degree of violence exhibited by one man, in particular — and who, exactly, this man turned out to be.
Video footage first published by France's Le Monde newspaper depicts none other than one of Macron’s security aides, Alexandre Benalla, dragging a woman by the neck away from a protest scene, where national police officers were already teargassing a small group. After a beat, Benalla appears back on camera, this time to attack a young man the police had already dragged a fair amount.
The root of the scandal is this: Benalla is not a police officer; he was only dressed like one, wearing the type of visor they wear. According to Le Monde, he had taken a day off and had requested to “observe” police operations during the May Day protests. As the video shows, police did not intervene to stop Benalla.
Interviewed Thursday on French television, police officials could not explain why. “An observer doesn't act like that,” said Philippe Capon, a spokesman for a large police union, speaking on BFM-TV.
But the context, Capon said, could have presented Benalla with an opportunity to abuse his position. “He was an observer from the Elysee,” Capon said. “When police officials hear the word 'Elysee,' there is a particular apprehension.”
The fact that Benalla was given a two-week suspension as a punishment immediately drew the ire of political opposition leaders, as well as allegations of a coverup. On Thursday, Macron stayed unusually silent on what French media have already christened “the Benalla Affair” when reporters questioned him during a visit to the Dordogne in central France.
Bruno Roger-Petit, a spokesman for the Elysee Palace, told French media Thursday that Benalla’s punishment was the “most serious” ever given to a presidential aide.
But public outcry multiplied once France’s BFM TV network reported Thursday that Benalla had participated in security services at the Pantheon burial of Holocaust survivor and noted feminist Simone Veil, as well as in the security operation surrounding the French national football team’s victory parade — earlier this week.
Prominent members of Macron’s government struggled to explain the situation, especially when pressed on the question of a potential legal double standard that had applied to an administration official.
Amid the outcry Thursday, the French public prosecutor opened an inquiry into the Benalla case, an investigation that could ultimately lead to charges against him, as well as further embarrassment to the Elysee Palace.
Macron’s critics seized the opportunity to do precisely that, mostly to decry the persona of a president often called “Jupiterian,” out of touch or “the president of the rich.” Earlier in the summer, Macron came under fire for publicly scolding a sardonic high school student who addressed him by a nickname.
“When you are at the Elysee, you have to set an example,” said Laurent Wauquiez, the hard-line leader of Les Républicains, France’s mainstream conservative party, speaking Thursday on France’s Europe 1 radio. Wauquiez, whose stances often mimic those of the far-right National Front, has sought to challenge centrist but pro-business Macron from the right.
“Today, one has the feeling that at the Elysee, they think they are above the law,” Wauquiez said.