PARIS — French investigators on Friday detained for questioning one of President Emmanuel Macron’s top security aides who was caught on camera beating a protester in May, sparking a major political crisis for the French leader.
The presidential Elysee Palace said Friday it’s now taking steps to fire Alexandre Benalla, who was identified earlier this week by the Le Monde newspaper as the man who beat a young protester during May Day protests while wearing a police helmet.
A second man is also facing potential charges for involvement in the incident.
The belated referral of the issue to judicial authorities and what was widely viewed as insufficient action at the time by the Elysee Palace triggered a firestorm from the opposition.
Regular parliamentary work has been paralyzed for two days with questions about why it took 2 1/2 months to inform judicial officials and why Benalla stayed in his post. Questions over whether there was an official hush-up have also been raised, and whether Elysee employees have a measure of impunity not granted to others.
A parliamentary investigative committee was to begin work Friday evening on the matter.
The president’s spokesman said Thursday that Benalla had been authorized to follow police operations “as an observer” on May Day, his day off, and was suspended for two weeks in May and given a desk job as punishment.
Macron has remained silent on the topic.
The growing uproar marks the first time that Macron, an upstart centrist, has been faced with a scandal since taking office in May 2017, promising an exemplary presidency that breaks from the scandal-tainted past of France’s political elite.
For his political opponents, like Geoffroy Didier of the conservative party Les Republicains, what was seen as favorable treatment for Benalla amplifies the perception that Macron lives in “a citadel.”
“It’s an illusion to think you can put a cover on things when you live in a democratic country,” lawmaker and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said. “In the end, everything is known.”
France has been shocked by the video of the May 1 event in Paris showing Benalla, in a helmet with police markings and surrounded by riot police, brutally dragging away a woman from a demonstration and then beating a young man on the ground. The man is heard begging him to stop. Another man in civilian clothing had pulled the young man to the ground.
Police, who had yanked the man from the crowd before Benalla took over, didn’t intervene. Benalla then left the scene.
The second man was apparently a gendarme in the reserves who Le Monde said had worked with Benalla in the past.
Authorities moved into damage control soon after Le Monde on Wednesday identified Benalla in the video, which had previously been posted on the internet,
The presidential palace notified judicial officials on Thursday of the violent scene.
A judicial official said Friday that Benalla is being questioned on an array of counts. Among them is violence committed in a group by a person with a public service mission and misusing (police) insignia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The second man was detained hours later Friday.
The president’s office has begun proceedings to fire Benalla, based on his unauthorized possession of an official video surveillance film that he obtained to help prove his innocence, an Elysee Palace official said.
Linked to that, the interior minister announced the suspension of three ranking police officers Friday for allegedly giving the images to the security chief.
Le Monde said the images showed the violent scene in May.
Despite his official change to a desk job, Benalla was seen this month on the ground with police at several high-profile events, including the return home Monday of France’s soccer World Cup-winning team, an event attended by hundreds of thousands of jubilant supporters.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, meanwhile, chastised opposition parties for their “political exploitation” of the affair. With judicial officials at work, a police probe and parliamentary inquiry, “I’m certain all of the questions asked will be answered,” he said on BFM-TV.