The Macron presidency's dark side revealed

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The scandal surrounding French president Emmanuel Macron’s security advisor Alexandre Benalla, who beat up May Day demonstrators while passing himself off as a police officer, evokes a nauseating picture of a parallel police and a private security office within the heart of the French presidential office, writes Mediapart publishing editor Edwy Plenel in this opinion article on the fast-developing crisis engulfing Macron and his government. This privatisation of the president’s security, with the ugly atmosphere of hatchet men with a law to themselves, reveals the dark side of Macron’s monarchic style of leadership.

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Here are two men working for the French presidency, Alexandre Benalla and his acolyte Vincent Crase, caught in the act; false police officers, but true bruisers who beat up demonstrators. It cannot be excluded that there are still more such irregular agents sheltered by the French presidential office, the Élysée Palace, as appears to be suggested by the enigma of a third man, Philippe Mizerski, who was also present during the violence on May 1st at the place de la Contrescarpe in Paris.

The video that broke the scandal on July 18th, showing the violent scenes involving Alexandre Benalla and his associate Vincent Crase at the place de la Contrescarpe in the Paris Latin Quarter on May 1st. © DR

Just as it cannot be excluded that Benalla and Crase have been involved in other similar events, as might be suggested by the ease with which they imposed their presence upon the police officers present at the scene of their attacks on demonstrators, and the ease with which they were able to have the victims of their violence arrested (see video obtained by Mediapart below and our report here), and also their contacts within the Paris police administration from whom they obtained information.

Video footage obtained by Mediapart showing Alexandre Benalla obtaining the arrest of the young man who, minutes before, he had beaten up. © Mediapart

So, it appears that the presidency of Emmanuel Macron has now also privatised the maintenance of law and order. Besides being the first May Day march in Paris to be split up and halted by police, under the pretext of the presence of rioters and looters gathered close to the Austerlitz bridge, this year’s May 1st Labour Day march in the French capital also saw personnel from the presidential office engaging in the role of agents provocateurs, infiltrated, on orders, into the centre of police operations.

What is more, despite their actions being made known almost immediately to the highest authorities, they were protected by the state apparatus for more than two-and-a-half months, including by the French presidency, the interior ministry, its administrative bodies and the Paris police prefecture. It is difficult to find a precedent to such a situation, apart from the shadowy atmosphere that followed the 1968 upheavals, when the state occasionally organised the very violence it pretended to oppose.

The images of the May 1st events at the place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter of Paris showed show hatchet men in action, not those at the service of the French republic. Hatchet men who easily deliver violence and who are so useful for political coups de force. Fascinated by the world of security, they are amateurs who imitate professionals without accepting the constraints placed on the latter. For them, imposing order has no need of the law, and disorder often serves them as a prop to use for their aims. They are braggarts who mock rules and conventions, ambitious characters who move, with no period of transition, from working as political party security staff straight into the corridors of the presidential palace. Once at the Élysée, they receive special privileges and protection which allows for short-cuts in the normal administrative procedures. They are an illustration of a certain thuggery that nests down in the dark side of political life driven by the obsession for power.

It is neither the first nor the last time that what might at first appear to be an example of isolated criminal behaviour in fact demonstrates to what extent the personal power that characterises French presidential absolutism carries in its wake a shady and improbable world of the cunning and upstarts, who offer up their transgressive talents and daring for illegal action. What is however unusual is the discovery that such protagonists find themselves at the heart of the apparatus and not on its margins.

Now suddenly under the spotlight, Alexandre Benalla is revealed as a central figure on Emmanuel Macron’s presidential path from his election campaign to the Élysée Palace. Numerous emerging photos show Benalla as being indispensable and omnipresent to the candidate of yesterday and the president of today. There is a simple reason for this: Benalla was not any ordinary member of Macron’s staff.

Above: Alexandre Benalla (left) with Emmanuel Macron (centre) during a presidential election campaign visit to Amiens, northern France, in April 2017. Above: Alexandre Benalla (left) with Emmanuel Macron (centre) during a presidential election campaign visit to Amiens, northern France, in April 2017.

Serving under the somewhat vague job title of deputy to the president’s cabinet chief, Alexandre Benalla was in fact the head of state’s ‘Mr Security’, responsible for Macron’s personal and private security and protecting his secrets and his intimity. The president’s right-hand man was given lodgings in a building belonging to the Élysée on the quai Branly in central Paris, close to River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. It was there that former president François Mitterrand when he was in power (1981-1995) lodged his mistress Anne Pingeot and their daughter Mazarine, whose existences were for long kept secret by Mitterrand. It was there also that Mitterrand’s loyal friend and aide, the capricious François de Grossouvre, acted as the keeper of the vast premises until his suicide in 1994.

Far from relegated to a place in the background, Benalla happily demonstrated his importance in the presidential setup, as Mediapart witnessed in the preparations for the televised interview of Macron by myself and fellow journalist Jean-Jacques Bourdin on April 15th this year. During the considerations of locations at the Palais de Chaillot, where the interview would take place, he acted, pretexting security considerations, as if it was to be he who would decide upon the setting for the event, without any other member of the Élysée staff present at the time putting him in his place.

Amid the panic that has now gripped the presidential ‘court’ and the Members of Parliament from Macron’s ruling LREM party, a simple truth will not be easily effaced: by the choice and will of the French president himself, Alexandre Benalla was given a status that was as excessive as it is incomprehensible. How can one explain that a young man with no other professional record than having been a member of the French Socialist Party’s security staff and then that of Macron’s En Marche ! movement (set up for his presidential bid, now the LREM party) was subsequently able to occupy, with such freedom and irresponsibility, a so-important role within the Élysée Palace?

What is the justification for his security role, which curiously does not figure in the official Élysée organisation chart, when there already exists a specialised unit, the Security Group of the Presidency of the Republic (GSPR), with a large staff of experienced professionals from the gendarmerie and police?   

Even before the violence he was involved in on May 1st, Benalla was already in a position that placed him outside of common law and any official administrative framework. Which is why his personal behaviour engages the political responsibility of he who chose him and appointed him, namely Emmanuel Macron, and no-one else. Only the president’s choice, made on a monarchic whim and with personal pleasure, can explain the indulgence and protection given to Benalla after his thuggery on the place de la Contrescarpe on May 1st. While he could potentially be prosecuted for several offences – assault and battery, illegally interfering in police operations, illegally using police insignia, and more – he was protected by the state apparatus.

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