'It was up to Macron's office to respond,' interior minister says of Benalla scandal
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Facing questions before France’s parliament on Monday, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb defended his handling of the so-called Benalla Affair. Hearings on Monday mark the latest episode in a damaging political scandal for President Emmanuel Macron.
An employee of the ruling party, Vincent Crase, was also charged over the incident, the footage of which went viral on social media. Opposition MPs have accused the Macron government of a cover-up.
A packed room of lower-house National Assembly lawmakers on Monday questioned Interior Minister Gérard Collomb and Paris police prefect Michel Delpuech in the affair that has dominated headlines since the French daily Le Monde revealed it last week. On Thursday morning, the French Senate's Law Commission is due to hear Alexis Kohler, the secretary-general of the presidency, on the same matter.
The interior minister told the lower-house lawmakers on Monday morning that he learned of the incident involving Benalla on May 2 and that his staff then informed police and Macron’s office about it.
“It was up to them to respond,” Collomb told the lawmakers.
The president has yet to comment publicly on the scandal. But after a meeting of top government ministers at the Élysée late Sunday, a close aide said Macron considers the facts in Benalla’s case as “unacceptable”.
The source added that Macron will speak out about the matter “when he thinks it necessary” and that he promised it “had not been and will not be treated with impunity”.
On Monday, Macron called off his scheduled appearance Wednesday at the Tour de France cycling race, though aides insisted the cancellation was unrelated to the case.
Benalla was initially punished in May with a two-week suspension from active duty, the president’s office said, yet he continued to appear in Macron’s security details.
Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after video footage emerged showing him hitting a man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up a May Day protest in Paris.
The opposition accuses Macron, who came to power on pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office in order to ensure a “republic of responsibility”, of covering up for Benalla.
The Law Commission of the lower house of parliament's public grilling of Interior Minister Collomb began at 10am Paris time on Monday and lasted more than two hours.
Media reports had suggested the minister knew about Benalla’s assault but kept quiet. Opposition MPs warned before the hearing that they would demand his resignation if that were the case.
In prepared remarks at the start of Monday’s hearing in a packed National Assembly committee room, Collomb recalled the context of May Day this year, a day of “extreme violence” that saw 1,200 so-called Black Bloc protesters clash with police and mar the traditional labour union rallies with heavy property damage in central Paris.
Collomb told the lawmakers that he was not informed that Benalla would be acting as an observer during the May 1 demonstrations and said he learned about the Benalla footage in question in the early afternoon of May 2. Collomb said that when understood that the office of the presidency considered the behaviour unacceptable and would levy a punishment, knowing the Élysée Palace and the police prefecture had all the information necessary to take action, he turned his attention elsewhere.
“I have been criticised for not having referred the case to the public prosecutor… but it is not up to the minister to do that,” Collomb told lawmakers.
Responding to their questions, Collomb confirmed that he had met Benalla in the past, but the minister said he was not aware at the time of the 26-year-old's status as an aide to Macron.
Questioned by the same commission on Monday afternoon, Paris police prefect Michel Delpuech likewise said that he had not been informed that Benalla would be acting as an observer in the field on May Day and that he learned of the incident at issue on May 2.
After learning of the Benalla footage, Delpuech said he contacted the interior ministry and was told it was already liaising with Macron’s office. “To me, it was established that the Benalla issue was being handled by the hierarchical authority that he was answerable to,” the prefect told lawmakers.
Officers suspended and charged
Three high-ranking police officers, already suspended on suspicions they illegally gave Benalla video surveillance footage of the incidents to help him try to clear his name, have been charged with misappropriation of the images and violating professional secrecy.
Benalla, who was shown in video footage wearing a police helmet with visor as well as a police armband, was additionally charged with impersonating a police officer, as well as complicity in the unauthorised use of surveillance footage.
“This affair… is obviously not without consequence for the police prefecture,” Delpuech, Paris’s police chief, told the parliamentarians at Monday's hearing. “Fundamentally, these events are the result of unacceptable, reprehensible individual lapses against a backdrop of unhealthy cronyism,” he said, later specifying that his remarks primarily referred to the three officers charged and Benalla.
Delpuech is due to be questioned again on Wednesday before the Senate's Law Commission.
After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, French daily Le Monde posted a second video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.
Just days after the violent May 1 demonstrations, Macron had tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions”.
In a third video, published by the Mediapart investigative news site, police officers are seen kicking and punching a young man even after he has been immobilised on the sidewalk.
The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.
'Aware of nothing'
Opposition figures roundly mocked the interior minister’s remarks, often in similar terms.
“He saw nothing. He is aware of nothing,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen said after the interior minister’s hearing. “It is at the level of the president of the republic that one has to go looking for the answers,” the Rassemblement National leader told reporters.
Socialist leader Olivier Faure said after the hearing, “One can sum up this hearing by the fact that Monsieur Collomb is aware of nothing.” Faure added of Collomb, a former Socialist colleague, “We have here a minister who is seeking essentially one thing with this hearing: To protect himself, to avoid being the politician responsible for this affair."
“What we are asking for now is that the head of state [Macron] now come before this inquiry commission to answer these questions directly,” an MP for the far-left France Unbowed party Eric Coquerel said.
“The government tells us that there is nothing to see here, that everything was perfect, that there are probably administrative errors, but that there is no political responsibility. It is naturally rude and grotesque,” Eric Ciotti, an MP for the right-wing Les Républicains party, said after hearing Collomb.
The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who announced investigations by both the National Assembly and Senate. François du Rugy, the National Assembly's president, said Monday that the constitutional reform debate would now wait until September or October.
“Why the devil did he insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Élysée months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro asked in an editorial Sunday.
But ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the president’s silence.
If Macron speaks now, “we’d have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry”, Attal said.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Élysée workers.
He was also being provided with a car and chauffeur, the paper said.
Investigators have searched Benalla’s home in the Paris suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, where a city hall official said Benalla was supposed to have married on Saturday.
The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump.
“Macron defenceless”, the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)