Why IS the President publicly denying his mysterious bodyguard is his lover? GUY ADAMS on the sacked heavy who rose out from France’s gritty suburbs to become Macron’s right-hand man
- French President Emmanuel Macron denied Alexandre Benalla was his lover
- The response was to internet rumours over his relationship to the 26-year-old
- The 26-year-old was Macron’s personal bodyguard until last Friday
Of all Emmanuel Macron’s remarks following his short, stunning rise to the highest office in France, few have been as bizarre as his announcement this week that, to paraphrase another political denial, he did not have sex with that man.
The French President used a crisis meeting with MPs to vigorously deny any liaison with the suddenly notorious Alexandre Benalla, a son of Moroccan immigrants who, until last Friday, was his personal security guard.
‘Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes!’ he declared, presumably trying to be witty. ‘Benalla has never been my lover!’
Macron’s extraordinary comment, in response to internet rumours, was reported yesterday as he tried, but failed, to bluster through a growing crisis over his remarkably close relationship with the mysterious 26-year-old.
The scandal, now transfixing France, was triggered by shocking video footage that shows Benalla dressing up as a police officer (which he is not) in order to assault a man and woman on the streets of Paris.
It was filmed during May Day protests almost three months ago. But despite being instantly reported to the President’s office, the incident was quickly hushed up, seemingly against French law.
French President Emmanuel Macron walks ahead of his aide Alexandre Benalla at the end of the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, France
Incriminating CCTV footage was then concealed — again in dubious circumstances — which conveniently allowed Benalla to remain employed in Macron’s inner circle.
It wasn’t until mobile phone film footage of the attack finally emerged, eight days ago, that he was sacked. By then, the affair had seen Macron’s once-lofty approval ratings dip to just 39 per cent — roughly half their level after his election last May — with opponents using this appalling attempt at a cover-up to further fuel the image of Macron as a monarchical ‘President of the Rich’ out of touch with ordinary people and prone, in the words of Paris’s police chief, to ‘toxic cronyism’.
Grainy mobile phone footage shows Alexandre Benalla with a man on the ground on May Day
Serious questions were being asked, meanwhile, about the exact nature of the 40-year-old President’s relationship with the young man.
Though virtually unknown to the public, it swiftly emerged that Benalla had, over the past 18 months, become a key figure in the married President’s public and private life.
His background was certainly unusual: raised in a gritty suburb of Evreux in Normandy, he became an activist for the Left-wing Socialist Party as a teenager, eventually becoming friendly with its security director Eric Plumer, who helped him get employment with party officials, including former President Francois Hollande.
Around this time, it seems, Benalla first met Macron.
He worked for the party for several years, but was fired in 2012, after fleeing the scene of a car accident while driving for then industry minister Arnaud Montebourg.
French President Emmanuel Macron, his wife Brigitte Macron, flanked by Alexandre Benalla, French presidential aide
Rumours were circulated online over Macron’s relationship with Benalla – which the French president responded to
Benalla then spent several years doing security work back in Morocco. But when his old chum Macron, a former banker turned politician, decided to create a new political party, En Marche!, and run for the presidency in 2017, Benalla swiftly returned to Paris to help.
The duo soon became inseparable. They skied, cycled and attended tennis matches together. They were also on sufficiently close terms for the aide to have been given an all-access pass to the Assemblee Nationale and a key to Macron’s private residence in Le Touquet.
After his boss’s election victory, the young aide was given numerous perks, including a £100,000-a-year salary and a grace-and-favour Paris apartment on the Branly quay, close to where President Mitterrand once housed his mistress and illegitimate daughter at the state’s expense.
There was also a government car fitted with flashing sirens to help him clear the capital’s notoriously clogged roads.
On the political front, meanwhile, photos of last year’s presidential campaign showed Benalla to be a constant, somewhat shadowy, presence at Macron’s side.
At various points, he was also accused of manhandling journalists who asked awkward questions at campaign rallies, particularly those who asked about Macron’s marriage to Brigitte Auziere, the drama teacher 25 years his senior whom he met and fell in love with as a 15-year-old schoolboy.
Their unconventional relationship attracted even more comments thanks to rumours that paparazzi had taken compromising pictures of Macron with lantern-jawed Mathieu Gallet, the 41-year-old former chairman of Radio France, in a forest.
Eventually, Macron denied being gay or having an affair (the alleged photographs have never surfaced) giving an intriguing interview in which he declared: ‘Saying that it is not possible for a man to live with an older woman without being anything other than a homosexual or a hidden gigolo is misogynous. And it’s also homophobic.
‘If I had been homosexual, I would say so and I would live [openly].’
Once that thorny topic was put to bed, so to speak, Macron’s popularity surged. Later in the campaign, Benalla carefully orchestrated several key events, including his boss’s election night victory speech.
That glamorous occasion saw the new president — who, at 39, was the youngest in French history — hubristically take a solitary walk near the Louvre pyramid before walking up to the stage to the sound of the EU’s preferred anthem, Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.
Elsewhere, documents published by website Wikileaks revealed that Benalla — a police reservist who by then had been mysteriously promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, years earlier than normal — had during the campaign attempted to kit his team out with military-grade weapons, including guns, bulletproof shields and pepper bombs.
Despite twice being rebuffed by officials, who found the request ‘dangerous’, he was given a Glock pistol and 2,000 rounds of ammunition.
Then, after becoming a key member of Macron’s presidential team, came the event that has led to this week’s crisis: his presence at this May’s demonstrations, in which thousands of students joined protests against Macron’s economic reforms, which are aimed at updating France’s notoriously antiquated labour laws.
Alexandre Benalla (right) has ‘never been my love’ President Macron said – in a bizarre move for the French president
Benalla claims to have been invited to attend as an ‘observer’ — though the police claim no authorisation was given — and somehow got his hands on a police helmet, armband, and two-way radio.
When scuffles broke out on a cobbled street that afternoon, he threw himself into action, punching one male protester and tackling a young woman, as officers looked on.
The incident was promptly reported to Macron’s office. But for reasons that are now the subject of two Parliamentary investigations, a decision was taken to quietly suspend Benalla without pay for 15 days, before allowing him to return to the President’s side.
That appears to have been against the law: under clause 40 of the French penal code, Macron should have informed the judiciary of an alleged assault the moment he was aware of it.
For a time, however, the cover-up was successful. But last Wednesday, newspaper Le Monde published mobile phone footage of the assaults, taken by an onlooker.
They also identified Benalla as the man responsible.
He was arrested and indicted for violence against civilians and impersonating a police officer. His home and office were raided, and a decision made to sack him 48 hours later.
A colleague from the President’s office, Vincent Crase, who was also at the scene, has been charged as well. So too have three police officers accused of hiding official footage to prevent it being used as evidence.
In response to this debacle — there is no other way to describe it — Benalla admitted a ‘huge mistake’.
Macron meanwhile conceded his aide had made a ‘huge, serious error,’ but using rhetoric that might have been borrowed from Donald Trump, sought to blame the scandal on the media.
‘We have a press that no longer seeks truth,’ he said.
Emmanuel Macron attends a dinner with King Felipe of Spain on Thursday as the scandal continues to engulf him back in France
‘The media says, “Look. Looped images of a scene which is unacceptable and which I condemn. But I would like to see the scene before, the scene after, the context, what happened.” ’
The remarks were roundly criticised not just by political opponents, but anti-corruption groups. Human Rights Watch called them ‘dangerous rhetoric while journalists across the world are under attack by populist leaders and autocrats.’
While it should be stressed that few of his political opponents attach much credence to the saltier rumours about their relationship, the high-handed manner in which Macron dealt with the Benalla affair is seen to illustrate a deeper malaise: that he has grown imperious, arrogant and condescending.
He is certainly lavish in his spending on personal luxuries paid from the public purse — more of which later — even as he demands that the public tighten their own belts. For while supporters trumpet him as a mould-breaker, in fact he comes from the same elitist background as the old guard, worked for the same banks and went to the same schools.
Critics also say that he talks down to the poor and would prefer to chase benefit fraud than millionaire tax cheats.
He originally gained power because of the shambolic state of the main parties, whose support collapsed at the polls and then united behind him to head off the threat of the far-Right National Front. He was also ruthless.
In memoirs published this year, former mentor and ex-President Francois Hollande hinted that his protege, who had served under him as Minister of the Economy (in France one can serve in government without being a party member) betrayed him by pretending he would not stand against his own re-election bid. Macron, he noted wryly, had ‘that style of denying the plain evidence with a smile’.
He also spoke of Macron’s arrogance: ‘He is certain that reality graciously bends to his will as soon as he expresses it.’
The honeymoon period didn’t last long before stories began to appear which suggested vanity and a self-serving nature behind the shiny idealism. First, it emerged he’d spent 26,000 euros on make-up artists in the first three months of his presidency. Then, that he’d requested a new pool be built at his island retreat off the Riviera coast, and ordered 1,200 banqueting plates at a cost of up to half-a-million euros.
Last autumn, as austerity measures began to bite and after he had proposed reducing a wealth tax and cut the maximum rate of capital gains tax, his ‘President of the Rich’ tag began to appear.
King Felipe VI of Spain receives French President Emmanuel Macron for an official dinner at the Royal Palace on July 26
To Macron’s ire it has stuck, and has reminded middle and working-class France that far from being an outsider, Macron is, like three previous heads of state — Hollande, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing — a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, considered to be the training school for French presidents.
He had then worked for the Rothschild investment bank, earning 2.9 million euros advising Nestle on one deal alone.
He was the leader of the haves, as opposed to the have-nots, observed one commentator. This
impression was not dispelled when, during a two-hour-long televised grilling in the spring, he refused to use the term ‘tax evasion’ when asked about offshore wealth.
Instead he insisted on referring to the practice as ‘fiscal optimisation’.
In the face of falling ratings, France’s recent success at the World Cup might have been expected to provide Macron with a much-needed popularity boost and reset his troubled reign.
After all, his predecessor Jacques Chirac enjoyed a 15 percent ‘bounce’ when France won the 1998 tournament, allowing him to secure his re-election.
With this in mind, Macron ensured that he was photographed leaping on a table and punching the air, Freddie Mercury style, when Croatia scored an own goal in the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Alas, several critics, including influential political scientist Thomas Guenole, promptly accused him of making ‘a grubby political opportunity’ of the joyous occasion.
Days later, the victorious team was invited to the Elysee Palace. But even that led to carping about the speed at which Les Bleus had travelled down the Champs Elysee in their open topped bus, forcing a spokesman to deny the driver had been under orders to hurry.
Intriguingly, photos of the bus journey reveal that the victorious footballers and their management team had an unlikely companion during their journey past cheering crowds: also on board was the ubiquitous Alexandre Benalla.
The reason for his presence has yet to be properly explained — Christophe Castaner, Macron’s right-hand man, insisted Benalla had simply been ‘helping with the bags’.
Just another curious wrinkle in the increasingly murky tale of the President and his security man.