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.
Stopping the privatisation of power
On all levels, the Benalla affair is an affair of state, as it is based at the Élysée and as close as possible to the president of the Republic. If it does not have the same scale or gravity of preceding affairs during France's Fifth Republic, from the Ben Barka affair under President Charles De Gaulle to the Rainbow Warrior affair under Mitterrand, it is because those involved were caught in flagrante delicto at the very start of their career as low-level police officers and high-level courtiers.
But everything that we have learnt in the two weeks since this shadowy side of Macronism was revealed allows us to imagine what their future practices and abuses could have amounted to if, as the presidential office was hoping, the video of the violence committed at Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris had faded from memory without the bogus helmeted police officer ever being identified as a mission leader at the Élysée. How many other much more disastrous and damaging abuses of power would have been committed, involving a stream of other privileges and confusion of roles?
This affair of state is clearly a Macron affair too. For this saga of a person charged with a 'mission' at the Élysée who causes disorder by playing at being an auxiliary police officer should have been sorted out within 24 hours with him being thrown out of the presidency. In that case, and in that case alone, as far as we are concerned it would have remained a brief news story about an individual lapse, for all that it spoke volumes about the madness of power and the spirit of the times.
And if this did not come to pass, it is because the president of the Republic himself chose to protect his protégé. The only undeniable truth that has come out of presidential communications in recent days is Emmanuel Macron's claim of full and sole responsibility in the affair. But this responsibility, for not sacking his aide, for keeping him at his side, for maintaining his trust in him and not referring the case to the legal authorities, stands in contradiction with the mission conferred on the president by universal suffrage. Article 5 of the French Constitution states: “The President of the Republic shall ensure due respect for the Constitution. He shall ensure, by his arbitration, the proper functioning of the public authorities and the continuity of the State.”
Emmanuel Macron is certainly not the first president under the Fifth Republic to abuse - for his own personal power and partisan interests - this definition of his duties as guardian of a Constitution that is bigger than him. This duty involves “respect”, “arbitration”, “continuity” and “proper functioning” - words which speak of democratic caution and scruples. Yet these words collide head on with the imposition of ever more monarchical government practices, at the same time as the government gives the appearance of being at ease and accessible. The Benalla affair has lifted this friendly, smiling mask and confirmed to us the temptation that exists for presidential absolutism, the temptation for power to thumb its nose at an opposition who are scorned or caricatured, never heard or listened to. And to thumb its nose at the counter-checks and balances in society, in particular the press, which is demonised in the manner of Donald Trump as a purveyor of fake news, even though without it the truth of this affair would never have seen the light of day.
Emmanuel Macron seems to be echoing the words of Louis XIV - “L’État, c’est moi” or “I am the State” - in his swaggering acceptance of responsibility for the Benalla affair. A state under his control, without a balance of powers and counter-checks, without that firewall against personal power provided by an administration devoted to its mission rather than to a man, without those checks and balances that guarantee democratic vitality and stability. The Republican collective memory knows this from painful experience: that you can never be wary enough of those political adventurers who, having turned parties and traditions upside down, surf on the dynamic of formless movements which are completely devoted to their personality. There is clearly a gulf, both in time and political morals, between the adventurism of the future Napoleon III, the assassin of the Second Republic of which he was president, and Emmanuel Macron who was until the Benalla affair determined to accentuate the presidential nature of the regime through a constitutional reform that would have reduced Parliament's power still further.
Yet this gulf does not stop there being some resonance between them. For example, there was the 'Society of December 10' which helped Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to power, and of which Karl Marx provided a striking portrait in his unforgettable essay 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon'. In it he describes a diverse mass of people who included “vagabonds, discharged soldiers ... swindlers... pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers ... porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars...”. In short, wrote Marx, it was the “whole indefinite, disintegrated mass ... which the French call la bohème”.
How can one not think of this description when seeing the former member of the Socialist Party's security team and a reservist in the gendarmerie without a profession playing the bully at the heart of the government, without anything stopping them except the work of journalists? The fact that Alexandre Benalla's media defence is being steered by Marc Francelet, a former journalist turned go-between who was recently convicted of fraud, and, whatever she may say, by Mimi Marchand, the high priestess of the celebrity press, of its silences as well as its accommodations with the truth, adds to the picture of this strange tribe who seem to make up the presidential court.
With its unique cast list and its damaging practices, Macron's privatisation of power reveals a new episode in the degeneration of the Fifth Republic, even though before his election the En Marche! candidate claimed that he would raise it back up and rebuild it. Given that all personal power is tempted to push itself to its limits, by removing obstacles in its way, it would be naïve to hope for the president to re-evaluate himself. On the contrary, like a wounded animal, there is every chance that Emmanuel Macron will persist down the path of presidential absolutism.
We must therefore rely on ourselves, our own resistance, our independence and our solidarity to avoid a downwards spiral that will weaken our democracy yet further. After it escaped censure by Parliament, this government must instead be stopped by society.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter