French interior minister seeks to shift blame over Macron bodyguard scandal

Reuters , Monday 23 Jul 2018

Gerard Collomb
File Photo: French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France, February 21, 2018 (Reuters)

France's interior minister appeared on Monday to deflect blame over the handling of a video showing Emmanuel Macron's bodyguard beating a protester telling lawmakers he thought the presidency had dealt with the incident after he informed them.

The scandal has sparked a political storm and bolstered critics who say Macron is a lofty president out of touch with ordinary people. That criticism amounts to the sharpest Macron has faced since he came to power 14 months ago.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who is one of Macron's closest allies in government, told lawmakers during a 2.5-hour grilling that he took no further action after he showed it to the presidency on May 2 and was told punishment would follow.

Collomb faces criticism over how he handled the case and his comments could be seen as an attempt to minimize his own responsibility, potentially at the expense of the presidency.

The bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, was placed under investigation on Sunday along with four other people.

Le Monde newspaper released a video last week showing Benalla at the May Day protests in Paris wearing a riot helmet and police tags while off duty.

The footage shows Benalla dragging a woman away from a protest and later beating a male demonstrator.

Collomb said he had been shown the video on May 2, the day after the violence, had raised the issue with Macron's office the same day, and was told by his services that the bodyguard would be punished.

"I considered that the facts that were flagged were being dealt with at the appropriate level, so I did not get involved further on this issue," Collomb told lawmakers.

Benalla Who?

Collomb said he spoke by phone to the president on May 1 while Macron was in Australia, but at that time was not aware of the video.

The minister said he did not know Benalla was part of Macron's team and thought he was a police officer.

He also said the night of the protests Benalla had been at the police command centre with about 40 other people, but the minister had not been aware of his presence.

Macron fired Benalla, the head of his personal security detail, on Friday but faced criticism for failing to act sooner. Benalla had initially been suspended for 15 days before being brought back into the president's immediate entourage.

He appears in many Reuters photos and TV footage alongside Macron during public events, from the 2017 presidential campaign to the celebration of France's World Cup victory in Paris.

The French leader has not publicly commented on the case since it broke last Wednesday. The presidency said on Sunday he had ordered a shake-up of his office following the incident, although it gave no details.

Macron also cancelled an appearance at the Tour de France in the southwest planned for Wednesday, his office said.

Asked about French law that makes it compulsory for an official to report to courts illegal actions they are aware of, Collomb said it was up to his administration to raise the issue with judicial authorities.

"I was criticised for not referring the case to prosecutors. But it's not up to the minister to do that," Collomb said." It was up to the police chief and the office of the president."

He said he had discussed the issue with Macron over the weekend "as little as possible" and that the president was more concerned by the delays the affair was causing to parliamentary debates of a constitutional reform.

Opposition parties were united in expressing their outrage after the minister's appearance.

"The hearing does not calm the situation, (on the contrary) it increasingly points to the Elysee," Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the far-left France Insoumise party, told reporters.

Under France's presidential system, Macron himself cannot be questioned by lawmakers. 

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