Macron breaks his silence on Benalla affair: 'The buck stops with me'
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French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he was ready to take responsibility for the handling of a scandal over violence by a disgraced top security aide, which has embroiled France's leader as his approval ratings sunk to a record low.
At a gathering of lawmakers from his Republic on the Move party, Macron said he felt "betrayal" over the actions of his now-fired aide Alexandre Benalla, who faces charges of assault and impersonating a police officer.
"If they are looking for the accountable person, he is in front of you," Macron said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by AFP.
"The only person responsible for this affair is me and me alone. I am the one who trusted Alexandre Benalla."
He added that Benalla had been a supporter during his campaign and a loyal employee, but that the acts of May 1 were "serious and have been a disappointment for me, a betrayal".
The 40-year-old president also insisted that "no one has ever been protected" from facing the rules and laws of the country.
Videos have emerged over the past week showing 26-year-old Benalla hitting a young man during May Day demonstrations in Paris while wearing a riot officer's helmet and police armband, and wrestling a woman to the ground.
Macron's aides did not inform prosecutors about the incident, despite a law requiring public officials to alert authorities if laws are broken.
The scandal, dubbed "Benallagate", has prompted furious opposition claims of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.
Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May and transferred to an administrative role -- though he was repeatedly seen in Macron's security details until he was finally fired on Friday.
In a stormy parliamentary session dominated by questions about Benalla, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted "nothing has been hidden" from the public.
"I understand that some people might wonder if the decision taken was sufficient," Philippe said of Benalla's punishment, admitting that "a republic that strives to be exemplary is not always perfect".
Macron's office director Patrick Strzoda, appearing before a National Assembly committee investigating the case, acknowledged he imposed Benalla's suspension as well as a "demotion" that involved stripping him of responsibility for some elements of the president's security.
But he said that since no complaint was filed against Benalla, and that an analysis by the national police oversight body had not flagged any irregularities, he did not see any need to inform prosecutors.
"I determined that at my level I did not have enough elements to justify" such a move, Strzoda told lawmakers.
The head of the police oversight body, Marie-France Moneger-Guyomarc'h, also testified on Tuesday that police had no reason to believe the person in the Benalla video was not an officer and that the violence "was not illegitimate (if) carried out by police officers".
Macron's chief of staff Alexis Kohler will appear before a separate Senate committee on Thursday.
Macron has so far refused to speak to the public on the worst scandal to hit his government since he was elected in May 2017 promising to restore integrity to French politics.
He has called off Wednesday's scheduled appearance along the Tour de France route in southern France, though his office insists the move was unrelated to "Benallagate".
He also posted his first tweet in five days Tuesday -- an unusually long absence for the social media-savvy president -- to offer condolences to victims of the wildfires raging in Greece.
The scandal comes as Macron's ratings slump, with 60 percent reporting an unfavourable opinion in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday -- a record low for the centrist.
An Elabe poll, released before Macron spoke on the issue, found 80 percent were "shocked" by the "Benallagate" affair, with 75 percent urging Macron to break his silence.
"The problem isn't Alexandre Benalla's misconduct but rather the structure that made it possible," said Bruno Cautres, a political scientist in Paris.
"No matter the administrative or judicial consequences of this affair, it will mark a before and after for Emmanuel Macron."
'Lending police a hand'
Opposition lawmakers have seized on the scandal, paralysing debate in parliament while accusing the administration of trying to protect Benalla.
Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans has announced he will seek a no-confidence vote against the government, though this would be unlikely to succeed given the solid majority held by Macron's party.
Benalla has defended his intervention during the traditional May Day protests in the capital, which were marred by clashes between police and around 200 youths.
In a statement from his lawyers he said the young man and woman he was filmed scuffling with were "particularly violent individuals" he had been trying to "bring under control" while "lending a hand" to police.
Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, a security agent employed by Macron's party who was also at the scene, has been charged with assault.
Three police officers have also been charged with providing police surveillance footage of the scene to Benalla to help him try to justify his actions.