Benalla, or why France has les Bleus

It’s the summer torpor that dictates it : nothing juicy to report on the news except the usual columns of chiens écrasés and our ever repeating marronniers: it’s never been hotter, the drought has never been worse, France won the World Cup and will reign on football until the end of time.

But something is rotten in the Kingdom of Macronie : a close aid of Emmanuel Macron since the days of him being a mere dot on France’s political spectrum, seems to have gone berserk and kicked the living daylights out of some May 1 demonstrators, all this while pretending to be a police officer. It turns out the man has skyrocketed through the ranks of the réserve of the Gendarmerie Nationale (not to be confused with the career militaries, as has been the case on social media where Benalla has been compared to having the same status as the heroic lieutenant-colonel Arnaud Beltrame) and been given considerable privileges simply for being close to the Président.

As soon as Le Monde had published the videos of Alexandre Benalla attacking the demonstrators, it should have been clear-cut that he needed to be dismissed immediately and brought to justice: this didn’t happen. Instead, we found out that the Elysée had already been aware of the bodyguard’s actions and he had been “mis à pied” at the time, i.e. suspended for 15 days. Since July 18 when the videos were published by Le Monde, the Elysée has barely communicated on the entire affair, hoping to put a lid on it quickly and be done with it.

All in all, it’s a story that should have been quite ordinary, yet instead took an air of “affaire d’état” and has become the object of a parliamentary inquiry, with the minister of Interior, Gérard Collomb, former mayor of Lyon and close ally of Emmanuel Macron from when he was a member of the Parti Socialiste, audited today at the Assemblée Nationale, along with other governmental and institutional personalities over the next days. Though the Assemblée was supposed to work on a revision of the Constitution to reduce the number of parliamentarians, this affair has now halted all other legislative work.

But there is something far more daunting about this entire scandal: while the Président has stayed conspicuously silent on the entire matter, his most dangerous opponents at both opposing ends of the French political spectrum, have seized this vacuum to spout their criticism and are reveling in it.

In what will now go down as one of the most disastrous press conferences ever held in the Assemblée Nationale, Christophe Castaner, the State Secretary of the Prime Minister, whose primary job is to communicate between the government and Parliament, gave Marine Le Pen a golden ticket last Friday to lash at the government and Emmanuel Macron in particular.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the France Insoumise, the party that came 4th in the French presidential elections of 2017, calls it France’s Watergate moment. He declares the Président to be responsible for this entire scandal and therefore has proposed a censorship motion on the government since the Assemblée Nationale has no means of attacking the head of state directly.

From the party that Emmanuel Macron created, La République en Marche, and which holds a heavy majority in Parliament, not a peep has been heard. Here and there some of its MPs have stated how stunned they are, but nothing more substantial. As usual, they are proving themselves to be loyal soldiers and have done honour to French politicians’ traditional “langue de bois” (a manner of speaking wherein the user is purposefully being vague and ambiguous or pompous so as to divert attention from the issues at stake).

From the two mainstream parties that used to share power in turn in French politics, we didn’t hear anything weighty either, except perhaps from Laurent Wauquiez, president of Les Républicains, who asked those who work at the Elysée to be “exemplar”. Exactly what the candidate Emmanuel Macron said he would expect from his tenure at the Elysée as well.

What has this entire scandal shown us? That the comms-savvy team at the Elysée has not exerted damage-control on the scandal when it clearly should have. The vacuum they have let settle has been seized by French democracy’s most dangerous opponents, especially at a time when far-left voters were being lulled into their own summer torpor with the train strikes finally being over, and the Front National being busy fighting its own judicial demons.

Though this World Cup should have seen Président Macron’s popularity soar, the Benalla affair has put a damper on everyone’s high spirits according to the latest BVA opinion poll. Instead, we can’t help thinking Président Macron did a Lloris. In other words: this won’t be detrimental to the Macron presidency but it does make it look rather clumsy. 

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash