Monday

24th Sep 2018

Analysis

Macron's first test has come

  • The normally dynamic Emmanuel Macron has been strangely silent over the Benalla affair (Photo: Consilium)

Jupiter has fallen from his pedestal.

Just days after a picture went viral showing him on top of the world during the World Cup final, French president Emmanuel Macron - whose Greek god nickname comes from his concept of strong presidential power - is seeing his authority weakened by a parliamentary investigation amid media revelations about one of his closest security officers.

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  • Alexandre Benalla, deputy head of Macron's cabinet, was seen beating a man in a video first revealed by Le Monde

On Tuesday (24 July), the opposition Republicans party said they would table a vote of no-confidence against the government, for the first time since Macron was elected more than a year ago.

In an unusual communication strategy, Macron has remained silent since the controversy broke last week, while political allies and aides tried but failed to damp down the story with the opposition and the media - leaving him exposed to direct questioning of his use of his presidential powers.

At the centre of the scandal is Alexandre Benalla, a 26-year old bodyguard who was elevated to deputy head of cabinet at the Elysee Palace, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and expensive official accommodation.

Benalla, who has been seen with Macron at many official and private events, was exposed last week as the man who dragged a young woman by the neck and beat up a young man to the ground, on the margins of 1st May demonstrations in Paris.

The Elysee's fault

He is seen on videos and photos wearing a police armband and a police helmet, despite not being a police officer. How and why he was allowed to be with the police remains unclear, with Macron's office, political allies and heads of the police giving different versions of what happened.

The revelations, by Le Monde newspaper, have triggered an outcry that Macron has not been able to stop.

Within three days, both the National Assembly and the Senate decided to create inquiry committees, and an investigation was also opened by the Paris prosecutor.

Benalla was charged on Sunday, in addition to an employee of Macron's party who was with him, and three policemen who provided Benalla with CCTV tapes of the incident.

On Monday, interior minister Gerard Collomb told MPs from the inquiry committee that he knew nothing about Benalla - and suggested it was the Elysee's fault if Benalla had not been punished after the 1 May incident.

Also on Monday, the head of the Paris police and his deputy in charge of public order were questioned by MPs. Macron's head of cabinet Patrick Strzoda was summoned on Tuesday.

No 'fuse' left?

In the French political and institutional system where the president is protected by so-called "fuses" - civil servants or ministers who take the blame and resign over failures to protect the leader - Macron has thus been deprived of that protection within a matter of days.

The controversy, fuelled by opposition parties who saw an opportunity to put Macron in a difficult situation, has blocked parliament activities - leading the government to postpone a debate on a bill to modify the constitution.

The situation has been made more acute by Macron's style of government - often seen as authoritarian, with no real leader other than himself in his Republic on the Move (LRM) party, and with no counterbalance in a lower house where LRM hold more than two-thirds of the seats.

Beyond Benalla's actions - the two young people in question were filmed throwing objects at the police and Benalla has argued that he helped the police cope with "two particularly virulent individuals"- what is at stake for Macron is his image of a young leader who regenerates a political system marred with privilege and corruption.

Revelations of Benalla's own privileges, and impunity until Le Monde revealed the incident - as well as the connection made between Macron's personal circles, his party and non-authorised use of police equipment - may leave a lasting shadow on Macron's ambitions to reshape French political system.

The postponement of the constitutional debate is a first sign of this.

"It's going to be over with Macron's infallibility," a regular visitor to the president was quoted as saying on Monday, adding that the president now had to "preserve exemplariness".

Macron probably understood that himself last week, when he insisted, in his only public comment a few hours after the scandal broke out, that "the republic is steadfast".

Under pressure, this "Jupiter" puts on the more traditional clothings of the president as "republican monarch", the ultimate guarantor of the institutions, who is anointed by universal suffrage and almost impossible to impeach.

New polling low

But - just as he hoped to benefit from the French victory in the football World Cup and his time spent with players - the Benalla scandal comes at a difficult moment for Macron.

According to a poll published on Tuesday, Macron has reached a new low of popularity, with 32 percent support.

Another poll last week found 75 percent of respondents wanted him to have "more social policies".

At a moment when Macron is struggling to push his EU agenda to deepen the eurozone, the question for him and for his partners will be whether he still has the capacity to overcome opposition to his "transformation" of France and claim EU leadership.

A large part of the answer way depend on how he manages the Benalla case in the coming days.

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