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.”