A former top security aide for French President Emmanuel Macron was charged Sunday along with an employee of the ruling party after they were caught on video assaulting May Day protesters, footage that went viral on social media.
In the most damaging scandal to hit Macron since he took office last year, Alexandre Benalla and Vincent Crase were charged with “gang violence”, Paris prosecutors said.
Three high-ranking police officers, already suspended on suspicion they illegally gave Benalla video surveillance footage of the incidents to help him try to clear his name, were charged with misappropriation of the images and violating professional secrecy.
The president has yet to comment on the scandal, but his office said Benalla was punished in May with a two-week suspension from active duty.
Yet Benalla continued to appear in Macron’s security details.
The opposition accuses Macron, who came to power on pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office in order to ensure a “republic of responsibility”, of covering up for Benalla.
Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after video footage emerged showing him hitting a man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up a May Day protest in Paris.
Benalla, who was wearing a police helmet with visor as well as a police armband, was additionally charged with impersonating a police officer, as well as complicity in the unauthorised use of surveillance footage.
– Parliament revolt –
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb is to appear before parliament on Monday morning, with some MPs warning they will demand his resignation if he knew about the incident but kept quiet.
After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, French daily Le Monde posted a second video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.
Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron had tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions”.
In a third video, published by the Mediapart investigative news site, police officers are seen kicking and punching the young man even after he has been immobilised on the sidewalk.
The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.
The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who have announced investigations by both the National Assembly and Senate.
“If Macron doesn’t explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.
“Why the devil did he insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysee months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro asked in an editorial Sunday.
But ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the president’s silence.
If Macron speaks now, “we’d have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry,” Attal said.
– ‘Macron defenceless’ –
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysee workers.
He was also being provided with a car and chauffeur, the paper said.
Investigators have searched Benalla’s home in the Paris suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, where a city hall official said Benalla was supposed to have married on Saturday.
The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump.
“Macron defenceless”, the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.