The Benalla Affair: the latest in a long history of French presidential scandals

Franck Fife, AFP (archives) | Former French presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, photographed in 2017.
Text by: Marc DAOU
6 min

A security aide to President Emmanuel Macron, Alexandre Benalla, has been placed under formal investigation after a video showed him assaulting protesters. But other French presidents have faced their own accusations of crimes and misdemeanours.


The Benalla Affair, the first scandal to affect President Emmanuel Macron directly, has once again highlighted dysfunction at the heart of the French executive and prompted opposition accusations of a cover-up. The scandal has already spawned three investigations: by the police inspector general, the justice department and a parliamentary commission.

But earlier French presidents of the Fifth Republic from General de Gaulle to Georges Pompidou toNicolas Sarkozy are no strangers to scandal. Some have been accused of breaking the law, others were criticised for using their positions for personal or political gain.

De Gaulle’s secret security

The Civic Action Service (SAC), officially created in 1960, was a group whose stated intention was to “defend and promote” the ideas and actions of General de Gaulle: It has been described as a militia or a parallel police service that answered directly to the president. “At once legal and secretive (…), behind it trailed a whiff of scandal,” wrote historian François Audigier in his book, “A history of SAC, the dark side of Gaullism.”

The group operated outside of the law, providing muscle and digging up dirt on the general’s political opponents. Led by Jacques Foccart, the mysterious and powerful adviser in charge of African policy under de Gaulle, another of the group’s leaders was a former resistance fighter and a French minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua. The group recruited heavily from both the Gaullist movement and from organised crime. By the end of the 1960s the group reportedly had 3,000 members.

It wasn’t dissolved until the summer of 1981 after a gruesome multiple murder – the Auriol massacre – was triggered by internal rivalries. Jacques Massié, police inspector and leader of the SAC in Marseille, was accused by rivals within the organisation of corruption and of working with leftists. Shortly thereafter, a group of men attacked his home, killing him and his entire family. The group’s leader was brought in for questioning and five SAC members were ultimately charged with the murders.

Pompidou’s ‘plumbers

Under president Georges Pompidou, the national Directorate of Territorial Surveillance installed recording devices at the offices of satirical magazine Canard Enchainé to identify its sources for sensitive information. The operation was uncovered when journalist André Escaro came across fake plumbers installing microphones in the magazine’s new offices on the rue Saint-Honoré. The affair, described by Pompidou as a “farce”, nevertheless prompted a cabinet reshuffle in which the minister of agriculture, future president Jacques Chirac, was made minister of the interior.

Mitterrand’s ‘black cabinet’

Elected in 1981, François Mitterrand installed a secret anti-terrorist cell inside the Elysée Palace. It’s mission: to guard his private life from scrutiny. The president was having an affair with French art historian Anne Pingeot, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine. He housed his secret family in an annex of the Elysée at quai Branly (where, coincidentally, Benalla was also recently living).

The “black cabinet” also aimed to bury sensitive media stories. The cell placed journalists, actors, writers and political personalities under surveillance without authorisation. Among the people monitored was writer Jean-Edern Hallie (who was suspected of knowing about the president’s double life), actress Carole Bouquet (married to film producer Jean-Pierre Rassam, but under surveillance because of her ties to the Algerian president) and journalist Edwy Plenel (who was investigating the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior by French intelligence services).

About 3,000 conversations were recorded and archived by the secret group. The resultant scandal, which broke in 1993, only came to a close in 2008 with the conviction of Christian Prouteau, the head of Mitterrand’s anti-terrorism cell, and six others who were accused of breach of privacy.

Chirac’s fake jobs

President Jacques Chirac’s two terms were plaguedby scandals over the secret financing of the neo-Gaullist political party he founded, Rally for the Republic, and over fake City Hall jobs from when he was mayor of Paris(1977-1995). Judge Eric Halphen, in charge of investigating several political financing scandals, summoned the president to testify in 2001. Halphen maintained that smear campaigns were launched against him by Elysée “operatives”.

Sarkozy’s telephone records

Le Monde revealed in 2010 that the public prosecutor had obtained the telephone records of two of its journalists who were investigating the Bettencourt affair, which involved payments made by billionaire L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to members of Sarkozy’s government.

A few months later, the Canard Enchainé said the president had “personally” supervised efforts to spy on the journalists conducting potentially damaging investigations. The weekly relied on anonymous sources in the General Directorate for Internal Security intelligence agency to reveal the existence of “a group composed of a number of former agents” charged with spying on the journalists. The Elysée called the allegations “totally wacky”.

In perhaps the biggest scandal of them all, Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation for allegedly accepting 50 million in illegal campaign funding from the regime of late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In March investigators decided to proceed to trial. Sarkozy already faces trial on separate charges of illicit spending overruns during his failed re-election campaign of 2012.

Hollande and the mole

In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, right-wing candidate François Fillon claimed several times that a “black cabinet” was the source of several scandals that ultimately sank his campaign. Sarkozy, newly the subject of a campaign finance and corruption investigation, likewise pointed a finger at the Elysée: He accused Hollande of deliberately leaking compromising information.

The main scandal that undermined Holland’s mandate revealed profound security failures at the Elysée after a tabloid published photos of the president and actress Julie Gayet on the balcony of the presidential apartments in 2014.

An inquiry found that the photos were taken from within the palace grounds. The president suspected a mole, maybe an employee loyal to Sarkozy. The identity of the photographer was never revealed, but several Elysée secret service officers were transferred as a result.

A related scandal raised similar security concerns. Although the president is supposed to be guarded at all times by 63 police and security officers, photographs showed the president “escaping” the palace on the back of a motorcycle to meet his mistress. The photos, taken by paparazzi from an apartment across from Gayet’s, made the security services’ blood run cold: If a camera lens could find the president, why not the crosshairs of a sniper?

This article was translated from the original in French.

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