Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE)- French President Emmanuel Macron is finding out the truth of the old saying “a week is a long time in politics.” Just when he had hoped to benefit in the opinion polls from France’s victory in the Football World Cup, his popularity has fallen to 39% approval level, the lowest since he stunned France’s main parties by winning the Presidency just over a year ago.
The immediate cause of his fall from grace is the bizarre ‘affaire Benalla’. Just over a week ago the leading newspaper Le Monde revealed that his chief bodyguard, 26-year-old Alexandre Benalla, had been filmed roughing up protesters during the May 1st demonstrations in Paris. The article was accompanied with a graphic video. A cascade of revelations then exposed that he was unlawfully masquerading as a police officer, had been allowed to carry a firearm despite objections by the Ministry of the Interior, had a rarely granted security pass to the floor of the French National Assembly, had the highest level of access to defense information, a chauffeur driven police car, accelerated promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the Gendarmerie and a grace and favor apartment near the Elysée. The claim that he had a monthly salary of 10,000 euros turned out to be an exaggeration. It was only €7000 a month. It emerged further that when his activities as an unofficial police officer reached his superior at the Elysée, he was suspended for two weeks and the matter was kept under wraps. A suspension that was it seems largely notional. He is also accused of attempting to suppress closed circuit tv videos of the incident.
The ‘affaire’ exploded all over the French media with literally dozens of photographs showing him constantly at Macron’s side on every possible occasion, cycling, skiing, at private and public events – even riding on the bus the victorious French football team. He had a set of keys to the private home of President Macron and his wife Brigitte.
A panicked government suddenly found itself face to face with no less than three enquiries and an immediate criminal prosecution of Benalla. For three or four days the government was silent while the nation was treated to the spectacle of ministers, high officials and police officers being questioned live on television over the exact circumstances of the incidents, why it was hushed up, by whom and how it came about that Benalla, who clearly appears to be an excitable individual given to outbursts, had been so favorably treated. Those called to answer questions did not distinguish themselves in the process. Parliamentary business came to a standstill and the proposal to reform the constitution, notably by reducing the number of deputies, has had to be postponed indefinitely.
The President has refused to answer questions about the affair but finally broke cover in a highly contrived ‘private’ speech to a meeting of deputies from his own party. A video was leaked to the media in which he astounded the French public by saying it was all his fault and “if they want me, let them come and get me.” This piece of bar room brawl rhetoric was particularly absurd because the President is protected from prosecution by the constitution and everybody knows it. With heavy sarcasm he declaimed that Benalla did not have the codes to France’s nuclear weapons and that he had not had a sexual affair with him. This attempt at ridiculing the accusations backfired badly precisely because plenty of French people think he could well have had a liaison with his body guard and did indeed seem capable of giving him whatever he wanted.
There will now be a motion of censure in the National Assembly, which the government will defeat easily and gradually the affair will die down. But Macron’s air of invincibility has been severely dented. The affair has crystalized widespread criticisms of his arrogant style of government, which for some time has been causing unease.
Politically the affair has raised eyebrows particularly because the attack came from the very same media that a year ago treated the candidate Macron with kid gloves and absolutely refused to put him on the spot when they could and should have done. Le Monde and Libération, the papers that released the most damaging information in the most spectacular fashion had previously distinguished themselves by their sycophantic treatment of the then candidate and now President. The affair also has all the hall marks of an organized media coup. Naturally the question arises as to what Macron has done, who has he offended, to merit such treatment?
It is pretty clear that the informational bullets were provided by angry senior police and gendarmerie officers who have not liked Macron’s arrogant style. Never the less it was the normally pro-Macron media that fired them. Police officers have resented the use of what they regard as cowboys for presidential security and talk of a presidential bodyguard under Benalla’s orders reporting directly to the President. The recent case where the French ambassador to Hungary was removed from office for writing a perfectly legitimate confidential dispatch that was favorable to the politically incorrect Hungarian leader Orban has particularly angered high officials.
The judicial authorities have also done a complete U turn. In the past they have been totally uninterested in taking action against the President or his supporters, despite good cause on occasion. Now they are falling over themselves to hasten the Benalla prosecution even going so far as to carry out an unprecedented search of Benalla’s office in the Presidential palace.
For some time, Macron has been steadily losing popularity as he pushes through financial austerity measures and reforms to labor laws. The one time banker is stuck with the label ‘the President of the rich’. His purchase of €500,000 of China for the presidential palace whilst at the same time talking about cutting aid to the poor was a major public relations disaster. The economy remains stagnant. His much vaunted proposals for the Eurozone with a Eurozone parliament, finance minister and common financial policy, have been revealed to be the pipedream that they always were. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, instead of being the strong ally he banked on, is herself fighting for political survival. The Benalla affair have triggered violent reactions against a background of wide ranging discontent.
This is the first big political crisis of Macron’s presidency and it came out of a clear blue sky. He will of course continue with his mandate and calls by the opposition for his resignation are silly. But things will never be the same again. The opposition have, for the first time since last year’s elections, had a spring in their step. For the first time since the presidential elections the defeated and deflated candidate Marine Le Pen made an impression in the National Assembly. For the first time the opposition parties acted more or less in unison. For the hitherto bumptious Macron, in the words of the poet Browning, ‘Never glad confident morning again!’