Alexandre Benalla, filmed hitting protester, is questioned as Élysée cites ‘new facts’
A security officer for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has been taken into police custody and will be fired from his post after he was filmed hitting and stamping on a man at the edge of a Paris demonstration while dressed as a police officer, The Guardian reports.
Alexandre Benalla was being questioned by investigators on Friday morning after presenting himself at a police station. The French public prosecutor has opened a preliminary inquiry into a number of potential charges against him, including violence by a public official, pretending to be a member of the police and illegally using police insignia.
The Élysée announced that proceedings had begun to terminate Benalla’s work contract after “new facts” emerged about the incident.
Several politicians from left to right insisted on a parliament inquiry into how a presidential security official could have appeared wearing a police armband and visor, committing violence among real police officers without being stopped. There was anger and surprise that senior figures at the Élysée, who learned of the incident in May, did not refer it to the prosecutor as a crime.
The scandal erupted when the newspaper Le Monde published a video on Wednesday showing Benalla, a senior member of security staff at the Élysée, in a Paris square where riot police were teargassing and moving on young people on 1 May, during May Day street gatherings.
Benalla, wearing a police visor, is seen first grabbing and dragging a woman, then dragging, hitting and stamping on an unarmed young man who seems to be in pain. The many riot police close by appear to let Benalla carry out the violence.
One witness who saw the incident said: “What I watched was not normal; it was extraordinary, it was not legal and it was not techniques used by the police. It’s unacceptable, I’m extremely angry and I want to see action by the justice system, police and administration against this member of staff of the presidency.”
Benalla, who previously worked as a bodyguard and has never been employed as a police officer, had asked the Élysée for permission to use a day off to “observe police operations” during marches in Paris.
There was stupefaction from opposition politicians that Benalla had not been immediately sacked at the time. An Élysée spokesman said that in May, after the incident, Benalla had been suspended for two weeks then allowed to stay in his job, shifting to more administrative tasks.
Despite the Élysée insisting he now carried out only administrative tasks, the French TV channel BFM revealed Benalla was on the bus for the French football team’s World Cup victory parade along the Champs-Élysées this week.
A second bodyguard who worked for Macron’s security operation at the Élysée also featured at the start of the video, wearing a police armband, and violently dragging and shaking the young man, raising his hand as if to hit him. He was identified by the Élysée as Vincent Crase, a reservist gendarme employed by the president’s party, La République En Marche, who also occasionally worked for the Élysée’s security operation.
Crase had “exceeded his authorisation” to observe the police operation, a spokesman said, adding that he was suspended and the palace stopped working with him.
France’s police watchdog opened its own inquiry into how the two men had been dressed as officers and allowed to act violently without being stopped.
Politicians on the left and right suggested there had been a cover-up and questioned why the incident had not been referred to the police when it came to light.
The leftwinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon said: “If we accept that anyone can be allowed to pretend to be police alongside the police, we are no longer in a state of law.”
The Socialist party leader, Olivier Faure, said there was a a double standard in how Benalla had been treated compared with any ordinary French citizen.
Benalla was a familiar face during Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign and would regularly walk close to the candidate as part of his security operation. When Macron won the election, Benalla was transferred to the security staff at the Élysée.
The pro-business president had intended to spend this week on domestic visits in an attempt to counter his recent dip in approval ratings, and to shake off the persistent tag that he is a “president of the rich” not doing enough to help those in need.
On a walkabout in south-west France, Macron was asked whether the Benalla scandal called into question the standing of the French Republic. He said the republic was “unalterable” and refused to answer further questions.