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Scandal over Macron’s ex-aide grips France

Violence captured on video has led to questions about Alexandre Benalla’s role at the presidential Elysee Palace.

How and why a security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron obtained a fancy car, luxury address and gun are at the heart of a political scandal dragging in the leader.

France has been consumed by a political firestorm in the two weeks since Le Monde newspaper revealed that a man often at the president’s side beat up a protester while observing May Day demonstrations with police.

The violence, captured on video, led to questions about Alexandre Benalla’s role at the presidential Elysee Palace.

Alexandre Benalla, right, confronts a student during a May Day demonstration in Paris (Nicolas Lescaut via AP)

It also fed Mr Macron’s critics, who contend that the former investment banker runs the country like a private business with a small band of underlings.

Mr Macron promised voters an exemplary government before his election less than 15 months ago.

Shock turned to anger once the public learned that government officials knew about the beating the day after it happened and only suspended Mr Benalla for two weeks instead of firing him and reporting him to judicial authorities.

The punishment was widely perceived as so inadequate that it raised troubling questions: Was there a cover-up? Does France have a parallel police system or a deep state running the country from the shadows?

Mr Macron has dismissed the growing scandal as a “tempest in a teapot”.

Yet the public outrage is having an impact.

A staff reorganisation at the Elysee presidential palace is expected in the autumn.

Public opinion polls suggest the crisis has already cost the French leader popularity points.

Emmanuel Macron as Alexandre Benalla, right, looks on (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP, File)

The government survived two no-confidence votes on Tuesday in the lower house of parliament, where Mr Macron’s centrist party has control.

But the virulent debate that accompanied the votes made it clear France’s political opposition is not about to let the drama die.

Authorities have moved swiftly to catch up with the firestorm.

Mr Benalla lost his job two days after Le Monde identified him.

Days later, an investigating judge handed him preliminary charges, along with three ranking police officers and an employee of Mr Macron’s party who accompanied Mr Benalla to the May 1 protest.

Usually invisible officials who run France have squirmed under TV lights.

The leaders of the national police, a general, the administrators who run the Elysee Palace and the interior minister were among those called before two parliamentary commissions to explain Mr Benalla’s initial light punishment, and why the 26-year-old had a gun permit and perks such as an Elysee car, which is typically reserved for top police brass.

Mr Macron, 40, did not say a word about the beating until six days after the video of it went viral, when he pushed back.

“Alexandre Benalla never held the nuclear codes. Alexandre Benalla never lived in a 300-square-metre apartment … Alexandre Benalla was never my lover,” the president said, addressing news reports and rumours about the allegedly favourable treatment given his aide.

Mr Macron said he viewed Mr Benalla’s violence as a betrayal, but voiced appreciation for the work and loyalty of a young man from a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Normandy who the president said he would not forget “whatever happens”.

Emmanuel Macron flanked by Alexandre Benalla (Eric Feferberg/Pool via AP)

Despite the disclosures, an enigma hangs over the aide who signed on to Mr Macron’s security detail during his presidential campaign and rose quickly to his inner circle.

Mr Benalla was given the vague title of “charge de mission” that kept him off the official books.

He was often seen at Mr Macron’s side on official outings.

However, the unclear nature of his duties has helped fuel speculation about secret police.

The presidential palace has a complex security unit of military gendarmes and police.

Mr Benalla has said his job was to organise presidential visits.

“There is no parallel police,” the secretary-general of Elysee Palace, Alexis Kohler, insisted before the Senate inquiry commission.

Long before the scandal broke, Mr Macron, who created a political party from scratch, was accused by detractors of mounting an imperial presidency and living atop a citadel, cut off from French citizens with whom he had vowed to connect.

Two recent polls suggest the Benalla affair has not helped.

An Ipsos poll, taken shortly after the scandal broke, showed the president with a 32% popularity rating – four points lower than the previous month.

A poll by the Ifop firm also measured a four-point drop in Mr Macron’s popularity a week into the crisis.

Some feel the affair has had too much impact.

“We shouldn’t paralyse the country,” said art gallery owner Franck Le Feuvre, who is among those who think the scandal is a waste of time.

Mr Benalla “is just a guy who was too zealous, and no-one dared intervene so as not to offend the big boss”.

Mr Benalla has said that he regretted his actions became “the source of multiple fantasies”.

Government officials testified before parliamentary inquiry commissions that Mr Benalla was accorded an Elysee-owned apartment along the Seine while serving his suspension and also continued to receive his salary, which was to be deducted from his holiday time.

They also revealed that while working at the presidential palace, Mr Benalla received a permit for a Glock pistol on his fourth try.

The permit was approved after a new request, on new grounds, was transmitted to police by Mr Macron’s office director, Patrick Strzoda.

The sleek car with a police light used by the security aide was needed for presidential motorcades, Mr Strzoda explained.

The commander on the ground at the May protest where Mr Benalla was seen acting violently testified that he thought Mr Benalla, who as an observer was illegally equipped with a police arm band and radio, was an officer in civilian clothes.

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