Top officials in President Emmanuel Macron’s office were to appear before parliamentary commissions Tuesday as questions swirl over the scandal sparked by his former top security aide, who insists he was trying to help police when he was filmed manhandling demonstrators after a violent Paris protest.
France’s interior minister and the Paris police chief both indicated in testimony Monday that they were unaware Alexandre Benalla would be attending the police operation during May Day protests.
Another top police official, Alain Gibelin, told the National Assembly panel late Monday that contrary to Benalla’s claims, he had no official authorisation to attend the operation as an “observer”.
Macron’s office director Patrick Strzoda was to appear Tuesday before the commission at 4:30 pm (1430 GMT), as was Marie-France Moneger-Guyomar’ch, the head of the national police oversight body.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and other ministers are also expected to get an earful during parliamentary questioning on Tuesday afternoon.
On Thursday morning a Senate panel will question Macron’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler.
Macron is facing growing calls to address personally what has been dubbed “Benallagate”, which has prompted opposition claims of an attempted cover-up and paralysed parliamentary debate.
“Emmanuel Macron will not find it easy to restore his authority after being bruised by this disastrous episode caused by a rank amateur,” right-wing daily Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial Tuesday.
Benalla, a 26-year-old former bodyguard who became Macron’s campaign security chief before transferring to the Elysee Palace, has been charged with assault and impersonating a police officer after videos showed him striking a young man during the protest while wearing a riot officer’s helmet and police armband.
It remains unclear how Benalla obtained the armband as well as a police radio.
Waiting for answers’
Benalla has defended his intervention during the traditional May Day demonstrations in the capital, which were marred this year by around 200 youths who smashed shop windows and clashed with police.
In a statement from his lawyers Monday he said the young man and woman he was filmed scuffling with were “particularly virulent individuals” he had been trying to “bring under control” while “lending a hand” to police.
But Gibelin, head of public order in the Paris police department, told lawmakers that Benalla didn’t have “any authorisation” from Paris police headquarters to be at the demonstration as an observer.
It also remains unclear why the incident was not reported to prosecutors when officials learned the video was circulating on social media starting May 2.
Benalla was nonetheless suspended soon after for two weeks without pay, and Macron’s office says he was transferred to an administrative role — even though he has since still be seen in Macron’s security details.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb as well as Paris police chief Michel Delpuech told lawmakers Monday that it was up to Macron’s office to either inform prosecutors or impose any punishment.
“There is a problem of responsibility. The president could start by answering journalists’ questions,” Socialist party chief Olivier Faure told RTL radio on Tuesday.
“French citizens are now waiting for answers.”
Macron has called off a scheduled appearance Wednesday at a Tour de France stage in southern France, with his office saying the decision was taken because the prime minister had already made a race visit last week.
Benalla was fired Friday after newspaper Le Monde published the smartphone video showing him hitting a man at the protest, while riot police officers looked on.
The newspaper later posted another video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground.
Both protesters have come forward and plan to testify, according to a source close to the inquiry.
Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, a security agent employed by Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party who was also at the scene, has been charged with assault.
Three police officers have also been charged with providing police surveillance footage of the scene to Benalla so he could try to justify his actions.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that Benalla had been allocated an apartment in a luxurious mansion reserved for presidential staff, and had been given a car and driver.
The president’s office confirmed late Monday that “a request for lodging had been accepted” this year, but that Benalla “never occupied” it.
An Elysee spokeswoman also denied reports he was going to benefit from a pricey renovation that would have provided him with a 200-square-metre (2,200-square-foot) apartment at the site.