French Senate report into disgraced Macron aide opens rift with government

A damming report published this week by a French Senate commission of inquiry set up to investigate the scandal surrounding President Emmanuel Macron’s disgraced former security aide Alexander Benalla was dismissed on Thursday by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe as being politically motivated. The senators found that the events behind the scandal, which began when Benalla was filmed assaulting people on the sidelines of a May Day march last year, and which have been followed by Mediapart’s revelations that the maverick aide has been negotiating personal security deals worth 2.2 million euros with Russian oligarch’s close to the Kremlin, are the result of “major failings” at the heart of the Élysée Palace, which placed at risk “the security of the head of state and, beyond this, the interests of our country”.

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The French presidency and prime minister Édouard Philippe have reacted angrily to a French Senate commission report published this week presenting its conclusions after a six-month inquiry into the events and responsibilities in the scandal surrounding President Emmanuel Macron’s disgraced former security aide Alexander Benalla.

The Senate commission denounced “major failings” at the heart of the presidential office, the Élysée Palace, along with evidence that three of its top officials misled the commission and that Benalla had lied to it.

The commission recommended that Benalla should be prosecuted for perjury, and that the president of the Upper House, Gérard Larcher, should file a complaint with the public prosecution services into what it called “a certain number of omissions, incoherencies and contradictions” in testimony given to it by the senior Élysée officials.

These are Alexis Kohler, President Macron’s chief of staff, the president’s inner cabinet director Patrick Strzoda, and general Lionel Lavergne, head of the presidential security service.

The damning report, published on Wednesday, and its recommendations that include a reorganisation of the Élysée administration, notably an end to the employment of “unofficial” aides, was dismissed by Philippe on Thursday as being “very political”, referring to the opposition parties that make up the majority in the Upper House. “Traditionally, the separation of powers is such that it is not for the National Assembly nor the Senate to pronounce themselves on the internal organisation of the presidential office,” said Philippe, who added that he was disappointed by the report. 

The Élysée has said it will reply “point by point” to the senators’ conclusions, which question the true nature of Benalla's role with Macron, the “incomprehensible indulgence” shown to him by his hierarchy, and evidence pointing to efforts on high to cover up the scandal.

Shortly after the senators presented their report, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters gathered outside the weekly cabinet meeting that it “manifestly” contained “lots of untruths”. Questioned further, he then declared that, “I am not going to comment on a report that I haven’t read”.

Alexandre Benalla (left) appearing before a hearing of the French senate's commission of inquiry, September 19th 2018. © Reuters Alexandre Benalla (left) appearing before a hearing of the French senate's commission of inquiry, September 19th 2018. © Reuters

The Senate law commission began its inquiry after video footage was revealed in the media last summer of Benalla and an associate, Vincent Crase, assaulting several people during disturbances at May Day marches in Paris earlier in the year, including punching and stamping on one victim. At the time, Benalla was Macron’s personal security aide, with the title of deputy to Élysée cabinet director Patrick Strzoda, while Crase was employed as a 'security and safety' manager for Macron’s ruling LREM party.

Both men, who were officially present at the May Day marches as “observers” of policing methods, were also illegally wearing police insignia, including a helmet and armband. They were separately dismissed from their posts after the initial revelations on July 18th in French daily Le Monde, but it was soon discovered that the May Day assaults known to the president and his senior staff within hours of the events, when Benalla and Crase were given just a two-week suspension from duty and no move was made to alert the public prosecution services of their crimes.

Since July the scandal has deepened significantly, beginning with the evidence of a coverup on high, but notably the revelations, led by Mediapart, that Benalla and Crase were involved in concluding contracts to provide personal security services to two Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, Iskander Makhmudov and Farkhad Akhmedov. The deals were worth a total of 2.2 million euros and, as Mediapart reported earlier this month, Benalla began negotiating one of the deals when he was employed by the Élysée.

After being placed last July placed under formal investigation for the May Day violence, Benalla and Crase freely continued their business dealings. Despite bail conditions granted to them which stipulated that they must have no further contact with each other, the contents of a secret recording obtained by Mediapart and published last month (in English here) showed they met together on July 26th in clear breach of that order.

As a result of Mediapart's revelations, Benalla was on Tuesday placed in detention at La Santé prison in Paris.

Sibeth Ndiaye, Élysée Palace communications advisor, Alexandre Benalla and Emmanuel Macron, April 12th 2018. © Reuters Sibeth Ndiaye, Élysée Palace communications advisor, Alexandre Benalla and Emmanuel Macron, April 12th 2018. © Reuters

During their conversation, Benalla cited mobile phone text messages of support he received from Macron. In an interview with Mediapart last December, Benalla also claimed to continue to have contact with Macron, which the Élysée denied.

During the July 26th conversation, the pair also discussed their dealings on security contracts with one of the Russian oligarchs, Iskander Makhmudov, with details that showed Benalla had lied in his testimony, under oath, to the Senate hearing.

Mediapart last year revealed how the 27-year-old, who was appointed as the president’s security aide immediately after Macron’s election in 2017, after serving as his bodyguard during election campaigning, had, after his dismissal, kept several French diplomatic passports in his name while travelling abroad as a business “consultant”, notably in Africa where he accompanied a delegation of Middle East businessmen and met with high-ranking local officials.

The members of the Senate commission, which has questioned 48 witnesses, presented their report at a press conference on Wednesday. “We have investigated the functioning of the state, and not what Mr Benalla got up to,” said Philippe Bas, a member of the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party. “We have gathered enough elements to believe that the security of the president was affected.” Bas added that the report recommended that a complaint should be filed with the prosecution services “for false statements by Mr Benalla and about the contradictions in the initial statements by members of the president’s staff”.

The senators underlined that the Élysée had attempted to minimise Benalla’s responsibilities as Macron’s security aide, which Élysée cabinet officials had described to them as being “logistical”. Senator Muriel Jourda, of the LR party, underlined “the incomprehensible indulgence of Alexandre Benalla’s hierarchy”.

The senators’ report highlighted “the imprecision, divergences and forgetfulness in the testimony of the head of state’s close aides”, which was given under oath.   Bas said that “everyone knows” that the Élysée secretary general Alexis Kohler, cabinet director Patrick Strzoda and its security head General Lionel Lavergne held back a “significant part of the truth”.

Concerning the testimony given to the commission by top officials from the Élysée, senator Bas commented that, “If we want to bring out the truth and we are lied to, then parliament cannot fulfil its role in the name of the French [people], and it is therefore a right of the French [people] that is flouted”.

In its report, the commission, which called for “better respect, in future, of the prerogatives of parliament”, called into question “the head of state’s closest aides, and in particular cabinet chief Mr Strzoda” for the “presentation that they made of the missions exercised by Mr Benalla [which were] contradicted by the evidence gathered, which indicates his real involvement in ensuring of the security of the French president”.

Socialist Party senator Jean-Pierre Sueur, co-rapporteur of the inquiry, added: “Contrary to what was said under oath before our commission, a specific mission for the coordination of the security services of the French president were given to him [Benalla],” said Sueur. “He exercised this on his own, under the supervision of the cabinet director.”

“There is no doubt that the relationships of a member of staff of the Élysée [Benalla], involved in the security of the French presidency, with a Russian oligarch are of a nature, given the financial dependence this implies, to affect the security of the head of state and, beyond this, the interests of our country.”

The senators’ report also noted that it was only after Mediapart revealed Benalla’s continued possession of diplomatic passports that he was finally ordered to hand them back.

Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur said “the lack of precautions taken by the French presidency to prevent a conflict of interest of some of its staff is confirmed with the affair of the Russian contracts”. The commission’s report underlined that the Élysée had not taken proper measures “to assure itself that the private interests of some of its staff would not interfere with the exercise of their responsibilities, nor compromise their independence”. Benalla was one of eight presidential aides who had not made an official declaration of their wealth and other interests, despite the requirements of a French law on the transparency of the interests of holders of public office.

The report recommended that the hiring of presidential office staff should be conditional to “a prior administrative inquiry” in order to “ensure the compatibility of their behaviour” with regard to their future responsibilities. It called for an improvement in ensuring “a high level of security” for the president, and a “reinforcement of parliamentary controls”.

Despite their six months of investigations, the senators were unable to answer a key question in the scandal, namely what exactly were Benalla’s duties with Emmanuel Macron. At the Wednesday press conference, senator Bas noted the “completely excessive place occupied by an aide to the French president, who came from a modest rank and who was without any experience of [serving] the state, in the exercise of the head of state’s security”.

Alexandre Benalla with Emmanuel Macron, Febraury 24th 2018. © Reuters Alexandre Benalla with Emmanuel Macron, Febraury 24th 2018. © Reuters
Élysée officials questioned by the commission claimed that Benalla was only involved in issues of protocol and the president’s travel arrangements, and was not part of wider security planning which is the brief two separate official security units, one for presidential visits, the other for ensuring the security of the Élysée Palace and other residences.

However, Benalla was recruited as special security aide to the president on the basis of his previous service as bodyguard to Macron during the presidential campaign. During a hearing by the commission on September 12th last year, senator Catherine Troendlé questioned Macron’s cabinet chief François-Xavier Lauch as to why a person whose only experience was in providing close personal security had supposedly been given a role limited to logistics. Lauch replied that he had wanted to apply “meritocracy” and “new approaches in the preparation for trips”.

Lauch was also asked why Benalla, if he had no proper role in security matters, was issued with a permit to carry a firearm in late 2017, on the initiative of Macron’s cabinet director Patrick Strzoda (and after two previous applications were refused by the interior ministry), to which he replied he did not know.

“Alexandre Benalla gave himself an active role in the organisation and management of the security of the French presidency, without any obstacle from his hierarchy,” concluded the report published on Wednesday.

The senators noted that the Élysée maintained its confidence in Benalla following the “serious” assaults he committed on May 1st last year, that the subsequent two-week suspension from duty involved no loss of salary, and that he was nevertheless allowed during that time to take part in certain official events. On top of this, the following month he was given a paid-for apartment, and continued to use a professional vehicle.

Regarding Benalla’s continued possession of diplomatic passports after he was finally dismissed from the Élysée in July – which followed the media revelations of the assaults he committed on May 1st – and which he reportedly used on around 20 different occasions, the commission found that “it was only in November” that the first move for the passports to be cancelled was made by the foreign affairs ministry, in a request to the interior ministry. The latter initially cited “technical” and “computer” problems for the subsequent delay in doing so, whereas, the senators noted, immediately after Mediapart’s revelations in December that Benalla was still in possession of the passports the problems were “rapidly and opportunely” resolved.

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  • This is an abridged version, with added reporting, of a Mediapart report originally published in French here.

 

English version by Graham Tearse

 

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