Benalla Scandal highlights fundamentals

When things go wrong, it highlights how things should be – and what needs to be done to put it right. This week the French Senate interviewed Alexandre Benalla whose employment by the President Macron’s  Elysee Palace is under investigation by a committee of Senators.

The man who to all the world looked like the President’s closest bodyguard, stated categorically that he was never the President’s bodyguard. He also stated that he had kept a firearm on his person for his own protection and not that of the President.

The catalyst for the investigation was Benalla being captured on camera strong arming protestors on May 1st in Paris; yet he was officially only present as “an observer”.

What was a Presidential employee doing in the ranks of the police and acting like a licensed thug ? Indeed why did President Macron have someone who is neither a police officer nor a soldier constantly with him in what looks like the role of a bodyguard ?

These are reasonable questions in a democracy, but the President’s spokesmen have claimed that the Senate has gone beyond its constitutional role and is using its investigatory powers for purely political reasons, ultimately to bring down the elected President. Indeed, President Macron himself actually phoned the Senate chairman to warn him about the separation of powers.

Such reaction from the Presidency has begged the question and has only served to reinforce the Senate’s assertion that it is perfectly within its rights to examine the matter.

And that is what any objective and politically aware observer would also conclude, frankly.

Having watched live, and unedited streaming of the Senate’s investigation of witnesses last week and this, I can only conclude that something is rotten at the heart of the Elysee Palace.

Why do I say that ?

Apart from what has already been said above, let me make certain comments, prefaced by this fundamental observation.

In a democratic State such as France, the rule of law for all, no matter who they are, is fundamental. And associated with that, is the strict observance of due procedure or process, not just in legal cases  but in all constitutional and political matters: no-one is entitled to use or abuse the State to their own ends.

When it comes a democratic president, his protection is a matter of State procedure. The presidency is not the personal property of the person elected, but an office to be exercised for the welfare of all in accordance with the mandate given on his or her election. There must be mechanisms in place to ensure that the office is protected from abuse by an individual.

And this is the fundamental issue here.

Police unions have made it known that Benalla acted as if he was in charge of the President’s security, and that police and military were expected to fall in with his instructions.

All of which has been denied by high level officials involved, eg by the General in charge of the Elysee’s security and by Benalla’s line manager,  the chef du cabinet at the Elysee palace.

But something is clearly wrong when there are serious contradictions in the evidence given and when you see the most senior people involved squirming and hesitating when asked critical questions.

Based on all I have seen and heard, and on many years watching the modus operandi of politicians, my assessment is this.

Elected at the age of only 39 to the highest office in the land, President Macron is an exceptionally strong and capable character who possesses immense personal charm. Coming out of relatively nowhere, to gain such office so young, he particularly prizes the work of those who have shown themselves loyal and effective during the period of his rapid rise.

He is an ambitious man who believes fundamentally that he is right. He is impatient for changes he believes fundamentally necessary – evidence the way he pushed through recent reforms on Employment law and practice, despising the hostility and public protests pursued by the Left.

It seems that Macron relied especially on Benalla –   an exceptional young man with a Masters in law and security issues, and significant experience in personal security at public events.

I seriously wonder whether Macron is creating a personal bodyguard utterly loyal to him,  and that Benalla is key to this.

Why do I say that ?

Benalla was present at the highest level meetings of a working group looking at how to create a single security service at the Elysee in place of the two agencies involved at present, namely the Ministry of Defence [within the precincts of the Elysee] and the Ministry of the Interior [ie policing of all presidential trips away from the Elysee].

Benalla recruited a personal friend from the Gendarmerie Reservists whose role is to recruit candidates to the Elysee palace Reservists. This gentleman was also caught on camera strong arming May 1st protestors …

Benalla twice applied to the Ministry of the Interior for a permit to retain a firearm on duty but was refused both times. I make the distinction because he has a permit to hold a firearm as a member of a sports club.

Interestingly, the Minister of the Interior, Gerard Collomb, has made it known that he intends to stand down next year. Mr Collomb was among the very first to espouse Macron and  was a key figure in giving credence to the En Marche campaign in the critical first days. But he is now known to have commented more recently that Mr Macron lacks humility …

Benalla was not refused a permit, however,  when he then applied to the Paris Prefecture de Police. Interestingly, and quite coincidentally, the chef du cabinet who signed Benalla’s firearms permit left that role in April this year to go where ?

…. to the Elysee palace as the president’s chef du cabinet for Intelligence …

The gun permit is at the heart of the enquiry because it explicitly states  it to be a police permit. Yet Benalla’s official status at the Elysee is adviser with administrative and liaison duties …

Indeed Benalla habitually used an official  vehicle marked as a police vehicle complete with flashing lights …

And there are numerous television images of Benalla at the President’s side looking and acting like a body guard, even after his derisory 15 day suspension from duties in May and his re-allocation to other duties. This slapped wrist punishment was determined by Benalla’s superiors to be sufficient and proportionate for his incredible conduct on May 1st.

Sufficient of course until the media got hold of the story in mid July and experts started to point out that public officials are under a legal obligation to report any public servant suspected of criminal actions.

So, we’ve had the Elysee trying to cover it up;  then MPs of minority parties pulled  out of the national assembly’s Investigation accusing Macron’s majority party La Republique en Marche of trying to fix the conclusions;  and now the smearing of the Senate where the President’s party La Republique en Marche has only 22 of the 348 Senators and so cannot control the agenda.

Why on earth would President Macron object to the Senate doing its Constitutional job ?

Under article 5 of the Constitution, The President “veille au respect de la Constitution. Il assure, par son arbitrage, le fonctionnement regulier des pouvoirs publics ainsi que la continuite de l’Etat”.

But what do you do when the person in the office plays politics with that post ?

Thankfully for democracy, France has a constitution explicitly defining parliaments role as “to vote laws, to inspect government activity and to assess public policy” – article 24.

What this affair demonstrates is just how vulnerable democracy is to ambitious personalities in powerful positions – and therefore how critical it is to keep a constant eye on the workings of government.

Especially in France with its elected monarchy…

Ray Catlin

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