Let’s put our American political scandals aside for a moment and consider a scandal involving French president Emanuel Macron and his former bodyguard.
Until recently, Alexandre Benalla, age 26, was in charge of Macron’s personal security during presidential trips. This seems odd in itself. Like the U.S., France has a security force tasked with protecting the president. Why did Macron have his own personal bodyguard? Is this customary in France? I don’t know.
Anyway, during riots on May Day this year, Benalla was caught on camera punching a male protester and tackling and dragging a young woman. Benalla was off-duty, but wearing a riot helmet and police tags.
Macron and his team became aware of the incident but failed to inform judicial authorities. Banalla was suspended for two weeks, but remained on the payroll and accompanied the French national soccer team during the World Cup victory parade.
When the newspaper Le Monde eventually identified Benalla as the man beating the protester during the May Day protest, the matter became a scandal. Macron received strong criticism for not sufficiently disciplining Benalla and/or not informing judicial authorities of his actions. Some critics wondered whether Benalla “has something” on the president.
Macron finally fired Benalla. In a closed-door session with political allies, the video of which was leaked to the press, he called the bodyguard’s actions on May 1 “terrible, serious, and for me. . .a disappointment and a betrayal.” However, he did not satisfactorily explain why he didn’t behave as if these actions were terrible until the media exposed them. Instead, he joked that Benalla is not his lover and does not have the nuclear codes.
Macron also attacked the French media:
We have a press that no longer seeks truth. What I see is media power that wants to become judicial power.
[The media] says look! Looped images of a scene [of Benalla’s violence], which is unacceptable and which I condemn. But I would like to see the scene before, the scene after, the context, what happened. Are [the images] shown with the desire to seek the truth and to present facts in a balanced manner?
Macron said he believes they were not.
Macron also stated:
If they want to hold someone responsible, he is standing before you, they can come and get him.
This raised hackles in France. Far-left lawmaker Alexis Corbiere accused Macron of trying to bully the opposition. Bruno Retailleau, a conservative party leader said:
It’s sort of giving the finger, what he did yesterday night, a finger to the opposition, journalists, the press, and even the French when he says ‘They can come and get me.’
If that’s bullying and “giving the finger,” how would French politicians describe President Trump’s responses to media critics? Macron’s defiance was mild by American standards.
This didn’t stop critics from invoking the specter of Trump and/or “populism.” The head of Human Rights Watch in France, tweeted that Macron’s remarks were “dangerous rhetoric while journalists across the world are under attack by populist leaders and autocrats to discredit or stifle any criticism of power.”
I don’t know what’s dangerous about politicians questioning the fairness and objectivity of journalists. To me, that’s often a healthy thing. Absent the possibility of pushback, biased journalists may believe they can get away with anything.
In any event, the Benalla scandal is a blow to Macron. A new poll finds that 60 percent of the president’s constituents have an unfavorable opinion of him.