PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday dismissed the scandal surrounding a top security aide who roughed up protesters as a “storm in a teacup”, as furious criticism from his opponents showed no sign of abating.
The former bodyguard in question, Alexandre Benalla, denounced what he said was a “desire to get at the president” using the scandal, the most damaging since Macron took office over a year ago.
Benalla, who was filmed manhandling May Day demonstrators in Paris while wearing a police helmet and armband, admitted however that he had “made a mistake”.
“I feel like I have done something really stupid,” the 26-year-old told Le Monde newspaper.
Benalla was charged with assault and impersonating a police officer after videos emerged last week showing him hitting a protester and wrestling another to the ground during the May 1 demonstration.
Benalla, who has said he merely wanted to help police bring violent protesters under control, insisted he did not commit a crime.
“Had I not been employed by the presidency, I would do the same thing again,” he told Le Monde, adding the police helmet he was filmed wearing was given to him for his security while attending the protest as an observer.
Revelations that top officials in Macron’s office knew about the incident but did not report Benalla to prosecutors have prompted accusations of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.
Benalla was suspended for two weeks — supposedly without pay, although it emerged Wednesday that he continued to draw his salary — and stripped of some of his responsibilities. He was finally fired last week.
Macron sought to downplay the affair on Thursday.
“I’ve said what I had to say, which is that I think it’s a storm in a teacup,” he told AFP on a visit to the village of Campan in southwest France.
Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans, who like many opponents has charged Macron with displaying arrogance in his response, accused the president of “monarchical leanings”.
“We’re facing a very serious incident — the president must explain himself before the people, he cannot do it with the disdain and provocation with which he has done so thus far,” Jacob told Franceinfo radio.
Opposition lawmakers have repeatedly called on Macron to address the nation over the affair.
After days of silence, he gave a defiant speech to members of his LREM party on Tuesday which appeared to take aim at parliament’s relentless grilling of his aides over the scandal.
“The only person responsible for this affair is me,” he said, while describing Benalla’s actions as “a disappointment and a betrayal”.
“If they’re looking for someone to hold responsible, he’s right in front of you. They can come and get me.”
On Wednesday, he accused his opponents of “disproportionate actions”, adding he remained proud to have hired former bouncer Benalla as he was a “devoted” employee who had “taken an unusual path” professionally.
Two parliamentary committees have been interrogating top Macron aides, with the president’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler the latest to take the stand before the Senate on Thursday.
Kohler acknowledged that officials’ initial decision to punish Benalla with a two-week suspension may “appear insufficient” but at the time it seemed “proportionate”.
Macron’s office director Patrick Strzoda told lawmakers Tuesday that he decided there were not enough elements to justify turning Benalla over to prosecutors, not least because no criminal complaint had been filed against him.
The opposition Republicans are set to file a vote of confidence in the government on Friday — a largely symbolic move, since Macron’s centrists hold a strong majority in parliament.
Macron’s approval ratings, already low, appear to have taken a further hit from the scandal, with a record 60 percent reporting an unfavourable opinion of him in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday.
Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, an LREM security agent who was also at the scene, has also been charged over the affair, as have three police officers accused of giving Benalla surveillance footage so he could mount a defence.