One of President Emmanuel Macron’s top security officers was at the centre of an escalating scandal for the French leader on Thursday after being filmed assaulting a protester during a May Day demonstration.
Le Monde newspaper published a video showing Alexandre Benalla striking and then stamping on a young man while wearing a police helmet and visor during the protest in central Paris.
Benalla, who is not a policeman and previously worked as a private bodyguard, had been given permission to “observe police operations” in Paris during a day off on the May 1 public holiday, Macron’s office said.
The presidential palace added that Benalla was suspended without pay for two weeks after the incident and had been transferred to an administrative role instead of organising security for Macron’s trips.
“This sanction was to punish unacceptable behaviour and it was a final warning before being sacked,” presidential spokesman Bruno Roger-Petit told reporters.
Prosecutors in Paris opened a probe on Thursday into possible charges of violence by a public official, of pretending to be a policeman and the illegal use of police insignia.
Imitating a policeman can lead to a prison term of up to a year and a fine of 15,000 euros.
On Thursday evening it was announced that the Law Commission of the National Assembly will hold an inquiry into the Benalla incident.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb confirmed in parliament earlier in the day that Benalla had “no right to intervene” at the gathering of leftwing student protestors on the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street loved by tourists.
Macron’s political opponents seized on the footage, asking why the security advisor had not been sacked or reported to the police over the clash.
In a further potentially damaging twist, the BFM news channel reported that Benalla had been back on duty doing security work this week during a victory parade by France’s World Cup-winning football team.
Asked about the video and the investigation during a visit to southwest France on Thursday, Macron repeatedly refused to comment, saying “I’m here with the people” and denying that the image of the state had been damaged.
The French republic was “unalterable,” he said.
Benalla was the head of security during Macron’s successful election campaign last year, usually found several steps behind the then-candidate. He transferred to the presidential staff in May 2017.
– Opposition attacks –
The 40-year-old centrist president was in Australia on May 1, a traditional day of demonstrations by trade unions which were marred this year by hundreds of anarchists who clashed with police and smashed up shops.
Macron condemned the violence at the time in a tweet, saying that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions.”
Opposition MPs, including the head of the rightwing Republicans party Laurent Wauquiez, suggested Thursday that there had been a cover-up for Benalla.
Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure said there was a “double standard” in how Benalla had been treated compared to any ordinary French citizen.
Alexis Corbiere, an MP for the hard-left France Unbowed party, said Benalla “deserves to be punished with a prison sentence, at least a suspended sentence, and with very heavy sanctions.”
The man struck by Benalla, who can be seen on the ground struggling for breath and in pain after the assault, was a member of the party, Corbiere added.
He was several kilometres from the main May 1 demonstrations and has not been identified.
Le Monde quoted a witness of the incident, Jeremie Ferrer-Bartomeu, as saying that it “was a really violent scene, which seemed to be without reason and completely out of the blue.”
Macron has fallen in the polls recently and has an approval rating in the mid-30s, according to one survey, though analysts said he might benefit from the feelgood factor after France’s World Cup victory last weekend.
His supporters claimed that the punishment handed down to Benalla — suspension without pay for two weeks and a transfer to an administrative job — was appropriate.
“Someone was found to have unacceptable behaviour and there was a sanction,” Social Cohesion Minister Julien Denormandie said on France Inter radio on Thursday. “It was immediate… meaning a suspension and a job change.”
Richard Ferrand, a senior MP from Macron’s party and a top figure in the campaign team, said “it was not a close aide, it’s someone who was responsible for security of the president during the election campaign and then joined the Elysee.”