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Inquiry widens into suspected beating of May Day protester by Macron aide

© Jean-François Monier, AFP file picture | Emmanuel Macron (right) and his Head of Security, Alexandre Benalla, (left) at a meeting in Angers, western France, on February 28, 2017.

Video by Ellen GAINSFORD

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2018-07-21

A probe into the suspected beating of a May Day protester by one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s top aides widened Saturday as three policemen were detained and a parliamentary commission summoned the interior minister for a Monday hearing.

Alexandre Benalla, the head of the president’s personal security detail, was on Friday detained for questioning after the Le Monde daily earlier this week identified him as the man who beat a young protester during this year’s May Day protests while wearing a police helmet.

The president’s spokesman on Thursday said that Benalla had been authorised to follow police operations “as an observer” on May Day, his day off, and was suspended for two weeks in May and given a desk job as punishment. On Friday, the Élysée Palace said it was taking steps to fire Benalla. Macron has so far remained silent on the topic.

Macron aide Benalla, filmed striking May Day protester, to be fired

The belated referral of the issue to judicial authorities and what was widely viewed as insufficient action at the time by the Élysée Palace has triggered a firestorm from the opposition.

Regular parliamentary work has been paralysed for two days with questions about why it took two and a half months to inform judicial officials and why Benalla stayed in his post. Questions over whether there was an official hush-up have also been raised, and whether Élysée employees have a measure of impunity not granted to others.

On Saturday a parliamentary investigative committee announced that Interior Minister Gérard Collomb had been summoned for a hearing into the matter in a session scheduled to take place on Monday.

Three police officers, who had previously been suspended from their jobs, were on Saturday also detained on suspicion of having handed over video footage related to the suspected beating to Benalla.

Police also conducted a Saturday morning raid of the suspect’s home in the suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, on the southwestern outskirts of Paris.

A second man is also facing potential charges for involvement in the incident.

Video grab taken on July 19, 2018, from footage filmed on May 1, 2018, shows a man identified as Élysée Chief Security Officer Alexandre Benalla wearing a police visor as he drags away a demonstrator during May 1 protests in Paris. © Taha Bouhafs/AFP

Macron’s ‘first scandal’

The growing uproar marks the first time that Macron, an upstart centrist, has been faced with a scandal since taking office in May 2017, promising an exemplary presidency that breaks from the scandal-tainted past of France’s political elite.

For his political opponents, like Geoffroy Didier of the conservative party Les Républicains, what was seen as favorable treatment for Benalla amplifies the perception that Macron lives in “a citadel.”

“It’s an illusion to think you can put a cover on things when you live in a democratic country,” lawmaker and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said. “In the end, everything is known.”

France has been shocked by the video of the May 1 event in Paris showing Benalla, in a helmet with police markings and surrounded by riot police, brutally dragging away a woman from a demonstration and then beating a young man on the ground. The man is heard begging him to stop. Another man in civilian clothing had pulled the young man to the ground.

Police, who had yanked the man from the crowd before Benalla took over, didn’t intervene. Benalla then left the scene.

The second man was apparently a gendarme in the reserves who Le Monde said had worked with Benalla in the past.

Moving into damage control

Authorities moved into damage control soon after Le Monde on Wednesday identified Benalla in the video, which had previously been posted on the internet.

The presidential palace notified judicial officials on Thursday of the violent scene.

A judicial official said Friday that Benalla is being questioned on an array of counts. Among them is violence committed in a group by a person with a public service mission and misusing (police) insignia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The second man was detained hours later Friday.

The president’s office has begun proceedings to fire Benalla, based on his unauthorised possession of an official video surveillance film that he obtained by to help prove his innocence, an Élysée Palace official said.

Linked to that, the interior minister announced the suspension of three ranking police officers Friday for allegedly giving the images to the security chief.

Le Monde said the images showed the violent scene in May.

Despite his official change to a desk job, Benalla was seen this month on the ground with police at several high-profile events, including the return home Monday of France’s soccer World Cup-winning team, an event attended by hundreds of thousands of jubilant supporters.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, meanwhile, chastised opposition parties for their “political exploitation” of the affair. With judicial officials at work, a police probe and parliamentary inquiry, “I’m certain all of the questions asked will be answered,” he said on BFM-TV.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2018-07-21

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