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.

The precedent set by François Mitterrand

With a reputation for a rigorous approach to his duties while in previous prefectural posts, Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet chief Patrick Strzoda satisfied himself with handing Benalla, after the events on the place de la Contrescarpe, the lenient disciplinary measure of a two-week suspension without pay. The manner in which Macron’s official spokesman has attempted to justify the measure was without plausibility, even adding that Benalla was on leave on May 1st – as if any employee would use up a day of leave on an official public holiday. Not only was he not automatically dismissed for gross misconduct, (Benalla was maintained as a member of the presidential staff), but no official alerted the justice authorities to the events, as they are required by law to do. Article 40 of the French penal code stipulates that, “Every constituted authority, every public officer or civil servant who, in the exercise of their duties, acquires the knowledge of a crime or offence is required to advise without delay the public prosecutor and to transmit to that magistrate all relevant information, statements or acts.”

But while the interior ministry took no action to comply with this requirement, even though the professional integrity of the police was placed in question, the presidential cabinet office stuck its head in the sand, counting on the passage of time and fading memories, hoping – until the initial revelations by French daily Le Monde on July 18th – that nothing would be made known and everything could continue as before. In a system where the imprudence, faults and errors of ‘the Prince’ bound together all those who serve him, the rules and regulations of the French republic were flouted from start to finish. Only the blind support given to Alexandre Benalla by Emmanuel Macron himself can explain how the perpetrator of such manifest criminal behaviour was protected to the degree that he was.

Alexandre Benalla with Emmanuel Macron in Rodez, south-west France, during the presidential election campaign in May 2017. Alexandre Benalla with Emmanuel Macron in Rodez, south-west France, during the presidential election campaign in May 2017.

The Benalla scandal is much more than the crash of a presidential aide. It is the sounding of an alarm on the manner in which this presidency is drifting towards an even greater personal grip on power by Macron. It is a consular march, with a permanent coup de force, towards an increased presidentialism of the Fifth Republic, with no regard to the checks and balances of counterpowers, reducing the role of the prime minister, placing parliament in submission, humiliating the opposition and spurning society.

As soon as power becomes a personal affair, the parallel police comes into business, protecting secrets and often mixing up public interest and private life, imposing its rules which, on the pretext of reason of state, escape the law. We will never know what would have been the rest of the adventure within the Élysée of Benalla and the little gang that surrounded him, although we can guess that no ethical code or moral principle would have prevented him from succeeding in his plans, from discrediting political opposition, and hindering curious journalists. But the little that we do know is remindful of a precedent, this time with a more professional face, and which, because it was not discovered early enough, had the time to wreak considerable damage. This was the special security and intelligence cell within the Élysée established during the first of François Mitterrand’s two seven-year terms of office, and which amounted to a private guard.      

Mitterrand, France’s first leftwing president who rapidly adopted the system of very personal power despite denouncing such practices when previously in opposition, used the pretext of security considerations, already then centred on terrorism, to create his own team of close guards. It was a special unit that was dedicated to protecting what he wanted to keep absolutely secret, and also for finding out what he absolutely wanted to know. Having been diagnosed with cancer shortly after his election in 1981, Mitterrand succeeded in hiding his condition from the public up until the last of his 14 years in office. Similarly, he succeeded in protecting his double life, appearing publicly with his official family and hiding his unofficial family in the palatial buildings of the state – up until the day, late on, when he decided to reveal its existence, stage-setting the moment himself.

In this privatisation of political power, the question of personal privacy is always the useful pretext. Under the pretence of protecting it, the absolute that is secrecy authorises the abuse of power. That is how Mitterrand’s special security cell, which tightly held the intimate secrets of the president, would become notorious for its illegal bugging of opponents, but also of his close circle, and lawyers and journalists. There were other deviant actions authorised by the presidential safe-conduct afforded to the cell, which also crossed boundaries, had its secret contacts in the police, played up its presidential status to impose itself over other security groups, and used lowly criminals who proved as harmful as they were clumsy.

The Benalla scandal, which has shone a light on the temptation of the Macron administration to establish a unit of private security at the Élysée, has happily come about in time to prevent this abuse of power from proliferating. But it reveals that this president who was elected with a pledge to introduce a “profound democratic revolution” is the very embodiment of its negation. Almost two years after those words were published in his manifesto book Révolution – whose title today appears as if it might have come from a George Orwell projection of when the lie will be proclaimed to be the truth – it is hard to believe that Macron also wrote that “responsibility is precisely what can contribute to restoring some of this collective moral that we have so much need of”. The then-candidate insisted that “ultimate responsibility is political” and that, in this regard, “some errors radically disqualify you”.        

Among examples he gave, and apart from the issue of political funding – which in particular concerns former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is placed under investigation and faces trial in cases relating to this, and who Macron recently invited to share his private flight back from Moscow after the World Cup final – were “undermining public administration”, “offences against the authority of the state”, which are both emblematic of the events in the Alexander Benalla scandal. Macron concluded that, “In such cases, one must have the decency to step aside”. Yet the president refused that his ‘Mr. Security’ should swiftly step aside following the events of May 1st.

Among the so-many salient citations from this book from another period, one of pledges which in reality are bound by nothing, is also the comment that “high-level public service must not be exempt from greater requirements”. Macron’s omnipotent chief of staff, the Élysée secretary-general Alexis Kohler, is seemingly able to reflect at will on this prudent recommendation, given he is apparently caused no embarrassment over his conflict of interest concerning his links with the powerful and mysterious maritime transport company MSC (see Mediapart's investigations here and here).         

Ephemeral, the enlightened comments made during election campaigns are always useful in underlining the darkening that comes about once power is gained. “Some errors radically disqualify you,” wrote Macron the candidate. It cannot be excluded that the “errors” of his protégé end up radically disqualifying his presidency.

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  • The original French version of this op-ed article can be found here.

 

 

English version by Graham Tearse

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