Macron accuses press, opposition of blowing up Benalla Affair
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French President Emmanuel Macron has come under fresh criticism after appearing to dare opponents to take him on over a scandal surrounding his senior bodyguard and ripping into the media for “talking nonsense”.
Critics say Macron's office failed to properly punish Alexandre Benalla, the head of his security detail, or refer him promptly to judicial authorities over an incident that has sparked the biggest political crisis of his tenure.
Footage showed Benalla, who was fired on Friday, hitting a male protester and dragging away a woman while off duty and wearing a riot helmet and police tags at a May Day protest in Paris this year.
The presidency said on Wednesday that Benalla's office at the Élysée Palace had been searched as part of a judicial inquiry into the matter, but gave no other details.
Appearing at a closed-door event in front of his own lawmakers and ministers on Tuesday, Macron said he alone was responsible for what happened. "If they want to hold someone responsible, he is standing before you, they can come and get him," he said, in a video leaked to the media.
Macron also slammed the media, echoing language that has been used by US President Donald Trump to defend his own actions.
"We have a press that is no longer pursuing the truth," he said. "What I see is media power that wants to become judicial power."
The next day, during a visit to southern France, Macron accused the press of indulging in a frenzy of falsehoods and conspiracy theories regarding, among other things, Benalla’s wages and the many perks he enjoyed.
"I have been here for an hour and nobody has brought the issue up," he told BFM television, appearing to portray the “Benalla Affair” as a storm in a teacup brewed by Parisian élites.
"Clearly, the heat and fatigue are getting to Parisians because here everything is fine," he added, also questioning the timing of the crisis, “two months and a half after [the incident] and a few days after the football World Cup”.
‘Everything is fine’
Opposition leaders have dismissed the comments as bravado.
"It's sort of giving the finger, what he did yesterday night, a finger to the opposition, journalists, the press, and even the French when he says, 'They can come and get me'," Bruno Retailleau, the head of the conservative party in the upper house of parliament, told France 2 television.
Far-left lawmaker Alexis Corbière accused Macron of trying to bully the opposition, while Socialist leader Olivier Faure said the scandal marked a turning point for his presidency.
"It's the end of innocence," Faure said. "We can no longer look at Emmanuel Macron and his majority as if they haven't lied, betrayed and hidden the truth."
The head of Human Rights Watch in France, Bénédicte Jeannerod, tweeted that Macron's remarks were "dangerous rhetoric while journalists across the world are under attack by populist leaders and autocrats to discredit or stifle any criticism of power".
The crisis began when French newspaper Le Monde identified the man beating the protester on a video as Benalla, noting that the 26-year-old bodyguard had not been sacked or charged despite senior officials knowing about the May Day incident.
Benalla was given a two-week suspension days after the incident and removed from organising the president's security during his trips. But the alleged assault was not reported to prosecutors, despite a law requiring public officials to alert authorities if laws are broken.
It has also emerged that the security aide continued to draw a salary during his supposedly unpaid suspension.
Benalla has since been charged with assault and impersonating a police officer. Vincent Crase, an associate and security agent employed by Macron's La République en Marche (LREM) party who was also at the scene, has also been charged along with three police officers.
Macron's chief of staff Alexis Kohler on Thursday will appear before a Senate committee investigating the case, two days after he was grilled by lawmakers in the National Assembly.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)