The Benalla affair has been merciless in the way it has exposed political life. It has shown how the government that emerged from the electoral massacre in 2017 ultimately has little democratic conscience, that combination of caution and scruples which harbours concern for the common good, above and beyond its own fate. Here is a president of the French Republic, a figure supposed to be the president for everyone and above groups and factions, who just a week ago himself launched a political and media counter-attack in the manner of a gang leader in front of his loyal followers. Challenging the opposing checks and balances of the state, Parliament, the press and even the justice system, he declared: “Let them come and get me.”
Since then his justice minister Nicole Belloubet, blithely trampling all over the doctrine of the separation of powers, has done the rounds of the media repeating that there is no scandal, just individual error, even as judicial investigations get under way to determined precisely what case there is to answer under the criminal law. As for Members of Parliament from the ruling La République en Marche (LREM) party, they had little hesitation in taking their party down the route of obstructing the work of the National Assembly's committee of investigation. It reached the point where the party rushed to announce conclusions that suited the presidency, displaying along the way a contempt for the Parliamentary system.
But there is a perhaps even worse aspect to the affair. In several media interventions arranged by public relations experts with the apparent support of the Élysée, the language used by the man at the centre of the scandal – Alexandre Benalla, the 'mission leader' at the Élysée who dressed in police insignia and was filmed beating up demonstrators – did not just seek to minimise the offences carried out by this trusted aide or his acolyte Vincent Crase, who worked for LREM. They legitimised them, insisting they were within their rights to help the CRS riot police by attacking demonstrators, by hitting them and arresting them. This is something they apparently did on several occasions, as the latest video revealed by Mediapart establishes.
In other words, if not quite permissible, it is apparently deemed harmless for the president's co-workers and those from his party to play the role of police auxiliaries and attack political opponents who are expressing their discontent in the streets. And this despite the fact that no charges were brought against the demonstrators after their arrest.
Do we need reminding that one of the fundamental democratic rights that anyone holding the temporary position of a national representative – including the leading one – must respect is the right of every citizen to demonstrate their opinions, to express them in the street and in public? On top of the traditional way that police violence during the maintenance of law and order is played down in France, the attempts to downplay the facts which are at the origin of the Benalla affair quite simply boil down to accepting the end of the rule of law in favour of an authoritarian regime.
For as the historian Nicolas Offenstadt stated in a timely reminder on social media (see below) “the exercise of physical violence against political opponents without legal mandate, or with the implicit support of the institutions, is a hallmark of fascism”. The presumed legitimate violence used by the state is then supplanted by a sectarian violence shielded by a privatisation of power.
If it is true to say that we are not there yet, nonetheless the situation is not reassuring. In the same way that, ideologically, the proposals to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality gave free rein to xenophobic choruses from the extreme right, what we are seeing and hearing in the Benalla affair is the acceptance by those who govern us of antidemocratic practices based on violence against those who oppose them.
For otherwise, given that the facts of the case were known to the Élysée and the presidential party as early as May 2nd, 2018, the two apprentice thugs of May 1st would have been sacked on the spot, with no delay or compensation, for serious misconduct. Yes it was precisely the opposite which occurred: they were shielded and protected. Not constituting a sanction from a legal point of view – as stated on a blog by university law lecturer Paul Cassia – their symbolic suspension for two weeks was just a ploy. Quite simply, they were not punished. Alexandre Benalla calmly went off on holiday to Brittany in west France before resuming his position next to the president of the Republic, with the same duties and the same benefits, to which one must add the privilege of a residence in the Élysée's annex at Quai Branly. And until the opportune announcement of his sacking on Tuesday July 31st, Vincent Crase was still in charge of security for the president's own party the LREM.
The spontaneous reaction of the presidency to the initial revelations about the affair by Le Monde on July 18th confirms the total commitment of this government to its own side. Not only was the Élysée spokesperson sent out the next day to lie in a brazen manner – nothing that he said stood up to subsequent investigation – but moreover, as Mediapart has revealed, in order to support Alexandre Benalla some of Macron's entourage used video footage from the Paris police and published them on the night of 18th to 19th July on LREM-related Twitter accounts. Because they set the wheels of justice in motion, it was the attitude of the chief of police in Paris and the Paris prosecutor who forced the Élysée to step up the pace and announce on July 20th that Benalla had been sacked from his 'mission' at the presidency.
In short, were it not for the press revelations and the sudden actions of senior public servants, the Élysée and Alexandre Benalla would never have parted company. And the latter's dreams of being the lead player in a new presidential security team totally devoted to Emmanuel Macron – to the man and not just his position – could have prospered. A phrase Benalla used in his defence when being questioned, and revealed in Le Monde, gives an indication of the direction that the president's 'Mr Security' intended to follow. “If tomorrow there is cohabitation [editor's note, meaning a prime minister, government and Parliamentary majority of a different political persuasion from the president] you have security that's under the control of the minister of the interior,” said Benalla with concern.
In this comment one finds the age-old obsessions of those who, believing themselves to be the king's musketeers, seek to ring fence the president's security. That was the thinking of the sadly well-known 'Élysée cell' that existed under the presidency of François Mitterrand. Its misfortune, which ended up with individuals in court getting suspended jail terms, is enough to remind us what hides behind this pretext of security: a growing privatisation of presidential power.