In politics you never know what’s going to trip you up. Slow growth and sticky unemployment stats would have spoiled Macron’s summer in any case, but who could have predicted the Benalla affair? It came as a bolt out of the blue. But then so did Penelopegate, without which the mischief of Macron’s “body man” would not be causing him so much trouble today, because he wouldn’t be president. Peccadillos can make you and peccadillos can break you.

I say “body man” advisedly, because in the US that would be the proper job description for a young man like Alexandre Benalla. In one campaign film you see him holding Macron’s umbrella. He was apparently a good event organizer, despite his tender age of 26, so he doubled in that role. Although he had come into the political world as a Socialist Party bodyguard, the title “chief of security” that is sometimes attached to his name seems to have been one of his fantasies. You can’t blame a young fellow for dreaming, and apparently Benalla, who grew up in the suburbs, dreamt of bringing order to chaotic surroundings. This is what got him into trouble on the place de la Contrescarpe and perhaps, we are now told, at the Jardin des Plantes as well. He had become used to hanging out with police, and his contacts at the force apparently indulged him by lending him a police brassard, a helmet, and a radio.

I’m not going to rehash the events, which are well-known by now. He threw a male demonstrator roughly to the ground and apparently punched him several times while he was down. He roughly collared the man’s female companion. He says they had been throwing bottles at the CRS, which the film appears to be corroborate. But he had no right to act as a police officer or to carry a gun. So he’s in trouble.

This minor affair has of course mushroomed since the first video was revealed by Le Monde. The press, as it often does in France, has made a mountain of verbiage out of a molehill of mischief. The handling of the affair by the Elysée and the government has been clumsy at best, compounding matters. The president’s chief of staff was content to administer a small slap on the wrist as long as the facts remained secret. When the story broke, the punishment increased, and Benalla has now been thrown to the wolves. Macron has been by turns defiant and dismissive, in what Cécile Alduy describes as his version of the society of the spectacle. It has not been his finest moment. But as I told the French Slate, nothing here rises to the level of past presidential misdeeds: the barbouzes of de Gaulle’s Service d’Action Civique, the Greenpeace Affair, Mitterrand’s private eavesdroppers–these were affairs of state. Benalla is a choirboy by comparison.

The affair has personal meaning for me chiefly because of its location. When in Paris I often stay near the place de la Contrescarpe. My novel’s opening scene is set there. And it was in front of my favorite café that Benalla committed his bavure. Perhaps some day the place will acquire one of those “oars” marking historic events: “Here ended Macron’s honeymoon.”

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4 Comments

  • Bernard says:

    Your picture doesn’t do justice to how tiny place de la Contrescarpe really is. There is only enough space there for a few dozen militants acting out a “picrocholine” revolution with a few pints. So the whole thing has been a joke from the start.

    Apart from the fact that news are especially slow during the holiday period, the reason this affair got blown up so much is really simple: the Teflon president could get nothing wrong and, suddenly, we see that he can make an error in judgment, recruiting a young man with an unhealthy passion for unarmed combat and a tendency to go ballistic (even Montebourg, not the smartest cookie around, fired him after a few weeks…). Then, compounding this error, he follows with extremely poor crisis management.

    So we find that Jupiter is, after all, a fallible man. And that, quite naturally, wets the appetite of all his opponents who now believe that they have found out how to derail him. And they could be right about that.

  • Bernard says:

    Correction: the young man is also a gun nutter. Apparently owns at least three guns and a shotgun. How he could be recruited without some serious vetting revealing his character flaws is beyond me.

  • Ron Peters says:

    Do you have any suggestions for books in English on contemporary (say the last 20 years) of French politics? I can find little out there other that 10 kilo academic tomes.

  • Alan Potkin says:

    M. Bernard… From an American perspective, owning “at least three guns and a shotgun [which, unless “gun” has some narrower meaning to francophones, is also a gun] hardly indicates a “gun nutter” and again, from our perch here, is in no way indicative of a “character flaw” which should have shown up in the “serious vetting”. Also, I’d imagine that a fully automatic AK —like those used in several jihadi crazy outrages in France, notably the Charlie Hebdo massacre— is a lot easier to illegally obtain most anywhere in Europe compared to the USA.

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