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Macron aides grilled in scathing Senate report on 'Benalla affair'

Geoffroy van der Hasselt, AFP | Alexandre Benalla, the former top security aide to the French president, pictured at a Paris courthouse on February 19, 2019.

A French Senate commission demanded Wednesday an investigation into three close aides to President Emmanuel Macron after finding "major flaws" in the government's handling of a scandal involving security aide Alexandre Benalla.

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The senators accused the three aides, including Macron's chief of staff, of contradictions in their testimony over the scandal triggered in July by video footage of former security aide Benalla roughing up protesters during a May Day rally.

Their report suggested that chief of staff Patrick Strzoda, presidency secretary Alexis Kohler and security chief Lionel Lavergne may have "withheld significant truth" during their testimony, notably about the remit of Benalla’s role as security adviser, and called on prosecutors to look into their statements.

The senate's investigative committee also said it had reason to believe Benalla may have lied to them under oath.

‘Concealing evidence’

French justice announced on Wednesday they had opened another probe into by former Macron aide Alexandra Benalla for allegedly obstructing investigations by “concealing evidence”.

Benalla, who was already facing criminal charges, was placed in detention on Tuesday for allegedly breaking the conditions of his bail, his lawyer Jacqueline Laffont said.

"What happened on May Day now appears to be the tip of the iceberg," Philippe Bas, a senator from the opposition centre-right Les Républicains party and head of the investigative committee, told reporters.

Senate's Philippe Bas: 'We focused on the protection of the president of the president' of France

The committee said Benalla also appeared to have misled senators over his alleged link to a contract between Russian billionaire Iskander Makhmudov and a French security firm, which was revealed by investigative website Mediapart.

There was evidence, the senators said, that Macron's security and France's national interests had been put at risk.

"There is no doubt that the indirect relationship between a Russian oligarch and a close aide of the president, who is directly involved in the presidency's security ... would compromise the head of state's security and, further still, the nation's interests," the report read.

The committee recommended that Benalla be prosecuted for perjury during the investigation.

Lying to parliament under oath is punishable by up to five years in prison and a €75,000 fine in France.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on Wednesday Macron's office would reply in due course to the "many untrue elements" in the senate's findings.

Accusations of presidential cover up

The "Benalla affair" sparked a major scandal for Macron, prompting a wave of accusations from opponents that the presidency covered it up.

The former top security aide was fired after the revelations, but officials are worried he may since have been profiting from his former insider status.

Those concerns were heightened late last year when it emerged that he had continued to use diplomatic passports long after his dismissal. The commission found Benalla had eight passports, four of them personal and four of them either issued for work or on diplomatic grounds.

Benalla’s lawyer said she has launched an appeal against her client’s provisional detention.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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