Who's Who in France's Benalla affair
One week into France’s Benalla scandal and as witnesses continue to appear for inquiries in both houses of parliament, FRANCE 24 looks at key players in the toughest crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency so far.
Alexandre Benalla, the 26-year-old at the heart of the scandal, grew up in a working-class district of Évreux, in Normandy. After work as a doorman at a bar in nearby Rouen, the young rugby player and member of the youth wing of the Socialist Party was hired as security personnel for the party in 2010. Assigned to protect Socialist leader Martine Aubry during the 2011 Socialist Party primaries ahead of the 2012 presidential election, Benalla was a member of 2012 Socialist candidate François Hollande’s presidential campaign security team. Ahead of the 2017 election, he would join former Hollande aide and ex-Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron’s campaign security staff, becoming the candidate’s closest bodyguard.
After the May Day incident came to light last week – and once it transpired Benalla had obtained videosurveillance of the incident that he was not authorised to have – the Élysée Palace fired him. Placed under formal investigation over the incident on counts of group violence, interference in public service, the illegal wearing of a police badge and complicity in the unauthorised use of surveillance footage, Benalla could face up to three years in jail and a €45,000 fine should the case go to trial.
The couple that Benalla was filmed manhandling on May 1 have not yet spoken publicly. “They don’t particularly want to be dragged into the media and political fracas. The Benalla affair does not concern them,” their lawyer, Sahand Saber, told Le Monde, describing his clients as socially integrated young people, just under 30, who both hold jobs. “They were onlookers, passersby who wanted to have a drink and take part in a demonstration. They wanted to see what a CRS [riot police] charge looked like. But the CRS charge fell upon them,” Saber said. A separate video from another angle that came to light more recently shows the couple hurling projectiles at police, including a glass water jug the man plucked from a Place de la Contrescarpe café table. “An impulsive, unthinking reaction,” their lawyer concedes. The pair has said they are reserving their first statements on the case for its investigating magistrate.
Vincent Crase, the employee of Macron’s La République en Marche party and a close associate of Benalla’s, appears alongside the Élysée aide in the compromising May Day video, a bald man in his 40s wearing a grey jacket. A reservist gendarme, Crase worked alongside Benalla during Macron’s presidential bid and, after Macron’s election, had occasionally handled security assignments for the Élysée Palace while working at the party’s headquarters. Shown manhandling protesters on the Place de la Contrescarpe, despite his apparent presence as a mere observer, he was placed under formal investigation on Sunday for group violence, interference in public service and prohibited carrying of a weapon. The Élysée announced on July 19, after Le Monde broke the Benalla scandal, that it was putting an end to any collaboration with Crase.
🔴🔴🔴🔴 ALERTA VIOLENCES POLICIÈRESTaha Bouhafs🔻 (@T_Bouhafs) May 1, 2018
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The Élysée staffers
Patrick Strzoda, Macron’s Chief of Staff, a respected 66-year-old career public servant who has held similar roles for a prime minister and an interior minister, authorised Benalla to “observe” law enforcement on May Day. After the incident, it was Strzoda who signed the letter informing Benalla of his 15-day suspension for “manifestly inappropriate behaviour” and warning that another lapse see him fired.
Questioned by lower-house lawmakers on Tuesday, Strzoda told the inquiry he decided on the punishment “alone”, saying he didn’t speak directly with Macron, who was travelling in Australia at the time, and took responsibility for it. “If I had misjudged or made a mistake, I would have been told so,” he nevertheless said after the two-hour hearing. Strzoda defended his decision not to inform the public prosecutor of Benalla’s conduct -- as the law stipulates a public servant does when he learns of criminal activity -- citing lack of evidence and the fact the alleged victims hadn’t pressed charges.
While pundits speculated Strzoda might take the fall for the Benalla affair, Macron’s buck-stops-here remarks on Tuesday evening appear to augur otherwise. “The only person responsible for this affair is me,” the president told his lawmakers from his party at a gathering. “If they are looking for someone to hold responsible, he’s right in front of you. They can come and get me,” Macron said.
Alexis Kohler, the secretary general of the Élysée Palace, its highest ranking staffer and Macron’s closest associate, is due to speak publicly about the affair for the first time on Thursday morning, when he is questioned by the French Senate’s Law Commission in the course of its inquiry. It was the 45-year-old Kohler who informed Macron of Benalla’s punishment, as levied by Strzoda, while the president was travelling in Australia. Macron has charged his secretary general with the task of reorganising Élysée staff to fix what he called the “dysfunction” at the Élysée since May 1 “so that it cannot happen again”.
Three police officers were suspended last week before being placed under formal investigation, charged in relation to having extracted and passed along videosurveillance footage of the May Day incident to Benalla and violating professional secrecy. Le Monde, which broke the Benalla affair, has named them as Laurent Simonin, a controller general at Paris police headquarters, Police Superintendent Maxence Creusat and Commander Jean-Yves Hunault.
In testimony before the National Assembly’s inquiry, other police figures have said it was Simonin who authorised Benalla to shadow officers on May Day without informing his superiors that he had done so. He is also said to have provided Benalla with the police helmet and visor seen in the video.
Paris Police Chief Michel Delpuech appeared before the National Assembly’s commission of inquiry on Monday. The 65-year-old police prefect said he had not been informed beforehand that Benalla would be in the field observing law enforcement on May 1 and only learned of the compromising video from an Élysée staffer the next morning -- despite having crossed paths with Benalla on the night of the demonstrations at a police prefecture debrief of May Day operations.
Delpuech told lawmakers on Monday he contacted the interior ministry upon learning of the footage and was told the ministry 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.
In his testimony, Delpuech reserved harsh language for the police officers suspended and charged in the Benalla case. “This affair… is obviously not without consequence for the police prefecture,” Paris’s chief of police said. “Fundamentally, these events are the result of unacceptable, reprehensible individual lapses against a backdrop of unhealthy cronyism.”
The Interior Ministry
Interior Minister Gérard Collomb gave testimony before the National Assembly’s commission of inquiry on Monday, saying he learned of the initial Benalla footage after lunch on May 2 from his staff, who had learned about it from the Élysée’s social media specialist. Collomb, a former Socialist who threw his support behind Macron’s rogue presidential bid early on, said he trusted that police headquarters and the Élysée Palace had all the information needed to take action and that, he told lawmakers, “It was up to them to respond.” Collomb said it was his number two, Staff Director Stéphane Fratacci, who informed him of the footage and Fratacci who told him the palace was planning disciplinary action against its employee. Fratacci has also been heard by National Assembly lawmakers for their inquiry.
Collomb finally referred the case to the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN), the disciplinary body that looks into alleged police wrongdoing, on July 19, the day after Le Monde exposed the story, and not when he initially became aware of Benalla’s conduct. The 71-year-old former mayor of Lyon defended that timing, saying new footage had come to light showing Benalla with a police armband and radio that justified the referral.
The IGPN report is due to be released “on Thursday or Friday”, according to its director, Marie-France Monéger-Guyomarc’h, herself questioned by lawmakers on Tuesday.