French president battles biggest political crisis of his tenure
Financial Times, Harriet Agnew, July 28, 2018
French president battles biggest political crisis of his tenure Emmanuel Macron pictured with Alexandre Benalla, right, in April 2017 Harriet Agnew in Paris JULY 28, 2018 Print this page When Emmanuel Macron finally responded to reports that his private bodyguard had assaulted May Day protesters, he took full responsibility. “If they are looking for the person responsible, it’s me and me alone,” he told members of his party on Tuesday, five days after the incident was made public. Yet, in the face of the biggest political crisis of his tenure, the French president remained full of bravado, declaring: “Let them come and get me.” Critics say that the scandal centring on Alexandre Benalla, the 26-year old formerly in charge of the president’s security during trips, has highlighted the limitations of Mr Macron’s self-professed “Jupiterian” presidency. And it has cast a light on the inner workings of Mr Macron’s highly-centralised team of trusted millennial, mostly male, aides. “Both the strength and the weakness of the president is to have a very centralised and vertical organisation around him,” said Nicolas Bouzou, head of Asterès, an economic research centre. “On the one hand it makes it efficient to launch reforms quickly but on the other hand it makes him vulnerable to affairs like Benalla because he’s not protected.”
The head of state has a behavioural problem — he expresses provocations but refuses to answer questions Thomas Guénolé At the centre of the incident is Mr Benalla, who was caught on camera almost three months ago punching a male protester and tackling a young woman during the May Day riots. Mr Macron and his team were aware of the incident but failed to inform judicial authorities. Mr Benalla was initially suspended for two weeks but was kept on the payroll and accompanied the French football team on their World Cup victory drive down the Champs-Élysées last week. The affair only came to light after a video implicating Mr Benalla was widely circulated online and published in Le Monde newspaper. The scandal has united opposition parties across the political spectrum, which are preparing to submit a motion of no confidence against the government. “It’s unthinkable that Mr Macron should taunt his opponents with ‘come and get me,’” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst and member of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left Unbowed party. “It’s a provocation by a child king, not a statesman. The head of state has a behavioural problem — he expresses provocations but refuses to answer questions.” Mr Guénolé said the affair is “a French Watergate . . . the main problem is not what Benalla did but the cover-up by the highest officials in Macron’s team. The accumulation of lies and the different versions of events are absolutely spectacular.” Many questions remain unanswered, say Mr Macron’s opponents.
Why did Mr Macron deem it necessary to have his own personal bodyguard when there is an established security group for the French president? Why was Mr Benalla equipped with a police helmet, armband and a two-way radio? Why did Mr Macron and his team fail to inform judicial authorities about the incident? Was it due to poor judgment, or was there a deliberate cover-up? The scandal comes amid accusations that Mr Macron is a “president for the rich” who is arrogant and out of touch with the lives of ordinary French people. A €26,000 bill for three months of make-up, a plan to build a swimming pool at the presidential summer retreat, and a public dressing down he gave to a teenager who called him Manu have all fuelled such criticism. Mr Macron recently ordered €500,000 worth of new banqueting plates for the Elysée Palace — around the same time his staff posted a video of him lashing out at the “insane amount of dough” pumped into social benefits. Little more than a year into his presidency, Mr Macron’s popularity is declining.
A survey by pollster Ipsos this week — the first since the Benalla scandal broke — found that Mr Macron’s support had dropped to 32 per cent, down four points since June and the lowest level since September 2017. Some say Mr Macron’s reign is as much about his style as his ambitious reform agenda, which is aimed at rebooting the eurozone’s second-largest economy. “Everything at the Elysée is based on how close people think you are to the president,” Mr Benalla told Le Monde in an interview on Thursday. “Did he smile at you, call you by your name, et cetera. It’s a court phenomenon.” Rumours have swirled on the internet about the nature of the relationship between Mr Macron and Mr Benalla, the son of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in a suburb of Evreux in Normandy and was unknown to the public until last week despite his proximity to Mr Macron’s personal and public life. “Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes!” joked Mr Macron when he addressed his party on Tuesday, adding that ‘Benalla has never been my lover!’.
In the Le Monde interview, Mr Benalla, who formerly worked with the socialist party and advised Mr Macron during his presidential campaign, admitted he had made “a big blunder”. He confirmed that he was paid €6,000 net of tax each month for his role, had obtained a pass to access the National Assembly, and had an apartment at his disposal, “an apartment of 80 square metres, not 300 square metres as was said”, which he claimed was necessary for his job. Mr Benalla was fired last Friday and is now being investigated for allegations of violence and impersonating a police officer. Mr Macron and his team are left dealing with the fallout. The Benalla affair has hurt Macron’s “image, political capital and credibility,” said Mr Bouzou. “What now is the credibility of Mr Macron and his government to implement some difficult reforms?”