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French interior minister grilled by lawmakers over Macron's aide Benalla

FILE PHOTO: French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb briefs the media ahead of an informal meeting of EU's Home Affairs Ministers in Innsbruck, Austria, July 12, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb briefs the media ahead of an informal meeting of EU's Home Affairs Ministers in Innsbruck, Austria, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo

French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb is facing questions in a hearing before parliament on Monday, the latest episode in a damaging political scandal for President Emmanuel Macron.

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Opposition MPs have accused the government of a cover-up over a former top presidential security aide who was charged Sunday with gang violence. Alexandre Benalla was charged Sunday after he was caught on video assaulting May Day protesters.

An employee of the ruling party, Vincent Crase, was also charged over the incident, with the footage going viral on social media.

The president has yet to comment publicly on the scandal. But after a meeting of top government ministers at the Elysée late Sunday, a close aide said Macron considers the facts in Benalla’s case as “unacceptable”.

The source added that Macron will speak out about the matter “when he thinks it necessary” and that he promised it “had not been and will not be treated with impunity”.

Benalla was initially punished in May with a two-week suspension from active duty, the president’s office said, yet he continued to appear in Macron’s security details.

Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after video footage emerged showing him hitting a man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up a May Day protest in Paris.

The opposition accuses Macron, who came to power on pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office in order to ensure a “republic of responsibility”, of covering up for Benalla.

La salle de la commission des lois, 60 places et 40m2... ou comment tenir la presse dehors #AffaireBellanaMacron #Assemblée

The Law Commission of the lower house of parliament’s public grilling of Interior Minister Collomb began at 10am on Monday. Media reports suggested he knew about Benalla’s assault but kept quiet.

If true, opposition MPs warned they would demand his resignation.

Three high-ranking police officers, already suspended on suspicion they illegally gave Benalla video surveillance footage of the incidents to help him try to clear his name, have been charged with misappropriation of the images and violating professional secrecy.

Benalla, who was shown in video footage wearing a police helmet with visor as well as a police armband, was additionally charged with impersonating a police officer, as well as complicity in the unauthorised use of surveillance footage.

Parliament revolt

After publishing the first video of the incident last Wednesday, French daily Le Monde posted a second video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street.

Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron had tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions”.

In a third video, published by the Mediapart investigative news site, police officers are seen kicking and punching a young man even after he has been immobilised on the sidewalk.

The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.

The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who have announced investigations by both the National Assembly and Senate.

“If Macron doesn’t explain himself the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.

“Why the devil did he insist on protecting a second-rank employee who should have been kicked out of the Elysée months ago?” rightwing daily Le Figaro asked in an editorial Sunday.

But ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the president’s silence.

If Macron speaks now, “we’d have indignant commentators everywhere saying his comments could influence the inquiry”, Attal said.

‘Macron defenceless’

Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysée workers.

He was also being provided with a car and chauffeur, the paper said.

Investigators have searched Benalla’s home in the Paris suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, where a city hall official said Benalla was supposed to have married on Saturday.

The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump.

“Macron defenceless”, the Journal du Dimanche said in a front-page headline on Sunday over a picture of the president and Benalla.

( AFP)

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