The day after, on Monday afternoon, the Air France flight transporting the victorious football team back from Russia landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Like their elders 20 years prior, Les Bleus were sent parading on an open top bus, down the Champs-Élysées, applauded by an ecstatic crowd, before heading to the nearby Elysée Palace for a reception by Macron. A merry time was had by all.
Most commenters predicted that Macron could expect a boost in popularity and approval in the wake of the World Cup win - just at the time his numbers had been dipping to an all time low.
Nobody could imagine how short the boost would turn out to be: unlike in ancient Rome, nobody was reminding the triumphing leader that the Tarpeian Rock is just a few steps away from the Capitol.
While the celebrations were in full swing on the Champs-Élysées and in the Elysée Palace, on the other side of Paris, across the Seine river, at the offices of newspaper Le Monde, Boulevard des Italiens, a small team of journalists were completing the last verification for an investigation which had started two and a half months ago: on May 1st 2018 precisely.
A Beautiful May Day
May 1st is the International Labour Day and traditionally, many unions organize a march in Paris and the main French cities. This year's Paris march was marred by serious incidents: more than a thousand hooligans from some loosely connected groups called "Black Blocks" started trashing nearby businesses (a fast-food restaurant and a car dealership) and setting cars on fire.
Some distance away from the big brouhaha, a smaller rally, initially called by high-school students on Facebook and relayed by university student union UNEF, was gathering about a hundred people on the Place de la Contrescarpe, in the heart of the Quartier Latin.
It was supposed to turn into a large open air debate around a drink (there are many cafés around) and discussions. A small group of riot police was present and there were a few minor scuffles and tear gas. While the police was dispersing the protesters, a man wearing a police visor, but no police uniform, seized one of the protestors and started hitting him. Shortly after, the assailant, realizing the number of smartphones filming the scene, left the area altogether, still unchallenged by the cops.
Le Monde drops the Bombshell
The journalists at Le Monde have been investigating video clips that were making the rounds on the social networks since early May, claiming that the masked man assaulting the protesters was a part of the Macron team at the Elysée. Two days after Les Bleus' parade, on the evening of Wednesday 18, Le Monde positively identifies the assailant: Alexandre Benalla, former bodyguard and responsible for Macron's security detail since the beginning of the Presidential election campaign in 2015. They also publish a video documenting the attack:
Other media soon add their own parts to the overall picture: the Minister of Interior, Gérard Collomb (formerly member of the PS and mayor of Lyon) was informed as soon as May 2 that someone from Macron's staff was caught on video. Benalla had reportedly asked to tag along the police units "as an observer": he was granted authorization, issued an helmet for his eventual protection (plus a "Police" orange armband, according to some pictures) and instructed to remain behind and keep to his observer's role.
A second video of the attack, from a Polish-American woman living in Paris, shows the attack from another angle, with Benalla brutally manhandling a woman, a friend of his first male target:
Macron's Chief of Staff, Patrick Strzoda, immediately called the President, who was on an offical visit in Australia. "If the facts are established, sanctions must be taken", reportedly said Macron. On May 4, Benalla is suspended for two weeks without pay and, according to the Elysée, "re-assigned to clerical duties".
Where is Waldo Benalla?
"Clerical duties" only, right? Not so fast: since Benalla has been ID'ed, the whole press has been reviewing all their photos and video recordings of events involving Macron since early May, and boy, is Benalla's face popping all over the place. On Macron's bicycle outing in Le Touquet? Check. During a visit to Claude Monet's house in Giverny? Check. The ceremony for the transfer of Simone Veil's remains to the Panthéon on July 1st? Check. Right behind Brigitte Macron in the official tribune during the Bastille Day parade? Check. Oh, and who is standing near the driver of the open top bus parading the victorious French footbal team on the Champs-Élysées on Monday afternoon? Could it be? You bet.
The Elysée Palace's lame explanation was that they needed "all hands on deck" for "exceptional events". Benalla's official job title was "Assistant Chief of Staff", no low-level flunky.
A general uproar followed the revelations from Le Monde. On Thursday 19, the Prosecutor Office in Paris opened an inquiry for assault by a public official and impersonating a police officer.
On Friday 20, Benalla was arrested and placed in police custody, along with Vincent Crase, a former gendarme working for Macron's party LREM, who was seen on the videos of Benalla's attacks. The same day, the Elysée Palace announced that Benalla was terminated, effective immediately
Also, three police officers, including a police Commissioner, have been suspended and were being auditioned by the IGPN, aka "the police of the police", for having illegally transmitted extracts of video surveillance records to Benalla. This was illegal on two fronts: first, the recordings must be erased after one month as per law and, surprise, looks like they were still available more than two months after the recording; second, Benalla had no authority whatsoever to be the recipient of such recordings.
Meanwhile, the Parliament was still in session, examining a reform of the Constitution pushed by Macron, reducing the number of lawmakers (currently 577), changing the election system with some lawmakers elected on a proportional basis rather than the strict district based current system. The opposition parties, both from the Left and from the Right suspended the session and demanded for Collomb, the Minister of Interior, to appear before the assembly the same afternoon: he declined. They also asked for Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to appear: he was out of town, attending the 13th stage of the Tour de France in the Alpes. Needless to say, this didn't go down too well with the lawmakers.
It's not the Crime, it's the Cover-Up
Several lawmakers contended that, given the seriousness of Benalla's actions, the Presidency as well as the Minister of the Interior had a duty to inform the Prosecutor Office, as per Article 40 of the Criminal Procedure Code: "Any public officer or civil servant who, in the pursuit of his duties, is made aware of a crime or misdemeanor, shall report the facts to the Prosecutor Office without delay."
This week-end, Collomb announced he would show up at the Assembly on Monday morning to answer the lawmakers' questions; the constitutional revision project is suspended sine die.
L'Affaire Benalla has been front and center of all French media for four days in a row and the storm shows no sign of abating.
The latest developments: Benalla and Crase have been released from custody on Saturday evening; they were due to be presented to a magistrate later on Sunday. The Prosecutor office has requested criminal charges to be filed against Benalla, Crase and the three yet unnamed police officers.
Also: the two persons assaulted on May 1st have been identified and reportedly indicated they want to talk to the investigators.
Obviously, not only did Benalla get away with a slap on the wrist, but the justice wasn't aware of the allegations until Le Monde's article. This can't be good. We all know that the law is for little people, but this scandal has the potential to rock the Macron system: Macron favors personal loyalty above anything else; this is why Benalla was not only kept but re-integrated into the President's security detail but also assigned a new apartment in the center of Paris, in a building belonging to and managed by the Presidency (Benalla was living in the suburbs before).
This blatantly naked impunity has shocked the public opinion, and the successive fibs by the Presidency and the government, about Benalla's real position and the ensuing cover-up can no longer be brushed under the rug.
Macron doesn't like the press - this is no mystery, and prefers "direct" communication (as in "corporate communication") to the public via Twitter of FB. His system has also been highly centralized, relying on a small number of faithfuls. This intense personal loyalty is probably at the root of the decision to keep mum on the whole thing, hoping that it would die out. Unfortunately for them, it didn't. Not only is the justice now on the case, but the two chambers of Parliament have created ad hoc committees to investigate the affair.
The whole affair is already seriously rocking the government and Macron himself: at a minimum, Collomb will probably have to go. But even besides the ongoing criminal investigation, the whole dynamics of the Macron system and his En Marche parliamentary majority has been undermined.
How lasting the damage will be? It's too early to tell, but one thing is for sure: Jupiter is coming back to Earth.
Update [2018-7-22 20:27:9 by Bernard]:: The five suspects, Alexandre Benalla, Vincent Crase and three police officer from the Paris Police Prefecture have been formally charged by a magistrate tonight. As the investigation is ongoing, they are expressly forbidden to communicate between each other and to exercise "any law enforcement activity".