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Why Benalla’s scandal is not an affair of state

The article below was written by Dr. Zak Allal, a Non-Resident Scholar at IWP.

In recent days, France was shaken by a scandal that is being portrayed by the French media as an affair of state. The scandal erupted after a video was published by Le Monde on July 18th showing a man posing as a member of the French riot police and assaulting two protesters on Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris on May 1st during the Labour Day rally.

The man in question was in fact not a policeman; he was Alexandre Benalla, President Macron’s security aide and deputy chief of staff. When the Elysée Palace heard about the incident the next day, they kept it quiet instead of starting a police investigation, prompting accusations of a cover-up. A few days after the scandal erupted in the media, three investigations were initiated: one by the police inspector general, one by the justice department, and another by a parliamentary commission.

The investigations did not quiet the opposition, which claims that the President has double standards. The President’s party, on the other side, claims that the scandal is blown out of proportion. The fact is that a Presidential aide — who was detailed as an observer at the police department — made a professional mistake by going beyond his duties, and allegedly assaulting two protesters. There should be an investigation, and there should be consequences for him. However, the French media is linking the man’s professional mistake to Macron’s overall tenure. The media went as far as labeling the scandal “President Macron’s affair of state” and made comparisons with past French affairs of state, including De Gaulle, Mitterrand and Sarkozy. Is Benalla’s scandal really an affair of state?

When de Gaulle came to power, there was an overall culture of suspicion, a tense political climate, and a terrorist threat situation with the OAS (Secret Army Organization, a dissident paramilitary organization during the Algerian War). De Gaulle’s closest advisor Jacques Foccart (also known as Mister France-afrique) encouraged him to create the Civic Action Service (SAC) in order to ensure the security of the general and the meetings of his party, the UNR. The association’s power increased to become, over time, a parallel police. With about 3000 members in the mid-sixties, it became essentially the security service of the Gaullist party, with anti-communist security missions, intelligence against General de Gaulle’s opponents, and secret and extrajudicial special operations. It recruited a lot in the police and the gendarmerie, but also in former resistance fighters. One of its leaders was Charles Pasqua, who later became the French Interior Minister. Its violent methods have often been controversial, including the involvement of some of its alleged members in the abduction of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965. The SAC was also involved in many abuses; more than 200 of its members have been cited in police reports for weapons, alcohol, drugs, and fake document trafficking. It was not until the summer of 1981, after the Auriol massacre, a series of assassinations between SAC members, that President François Mitterrand dissolved the SAC in August 1982.

On 3 December 1973, two journalists from the French newspaper Canard Enchainé surprised two “plumbers” in their offices, busy with work. The plumbers were in fact DST — France’s internal security intelligence agency who had a similar role to the FBI — agents setting up microphones in the offices in order to identify the people communicating sensitive information to the Canard Enchainé. Despite irrefutable evidence, such as clumsily camouflaged license plates on plumbers’ vehicles that prove they are part of the police force, DST denied the facts. A trial was opened, which proved the French newspaper to be right. Two and a half months after the events, Prime Minister Pierre Messmer and President George Pompidou replaced Raymond Marcellin, Minister of the Interior (responsible for the DST) with Jacques Chirac, who was Minister of Agriculture. Jacques Chirac’s arrival at the Ministry of the Interior had a pivotal effect on the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as President, after the death of Georges Pompidou on 2 April 1974. The administration of the Canard Enchainé left a commemorative plaque on its premises where the officers had pierced a wall to install their equipment.

After the 1982 terrorist attacks at rue les Rosiers in Paris, French President François Mitterrand set up a cell at the Elysée in order to fight terrorism. The cell was led by the first GIGN (French special forces) commander Mr. Christian Prouteau, and was also supervised by the President’s advisor on intelligence Mr. Gilles Ménage. For 6 years, the cell tracked down right-wing terrorists and extremists, but also behaved like a real private police force of the President. It wiretapped journalists, personalities, and political rivals. In total, the cell targeted more than 1,300 people.

The journalist Edwy Plenel of Le Monde, who revealed the Greenpeace affair and the role of DGSE in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, was wiretapped. The telephone lines of writer and polemicist Jean-Edern Hallier, who knew about the President’s double life and threatened to reveal in a book the existence of his hidden daughter, Mazarine, was also wiretapped. The actress Carole Bouquet was under surveillance because of her ties with Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid.

On 28 August 1982, three activists suspected of belonging to an Irish terrorist organization were arrested at the initiative of the GIGN in an apartment in Vincennes. Weapons, explosives, and compromising documents were discovered in the apartment. It later turned out that the gendarmes themselves had brought the explosives into Vincennes’ apartment to set up the Irish activists. After nine months of detention, the “Irish of Vincennes” were finally released at the end of May 1983.

The scandal was revealed by French newspaper Libération in 1993, while François Mitterrand was still in power, leading in the years that followed to a series of indictments and revelations, including the direct involvement of the President of the Republic. Interviewed in 1993, François Mitterrand denied the facts, got angry, and ended the interview (video here). The case was finally closed in 2008, when the Court de Cassation upheld the sentences of seven defendants, including Prouteau himself, who received an eight-month suspended sentence for “invasion of the privacy.”

When President Jacques Chirac was in office from 1995 to 2007, there were persistent rumors of wrongdoing related to illegal political party financing and fraud. He was, however, immune from prosecution as President. Chirac paid members of his RPR party for fake local council jobs when he was a Paris mayor between 1977-1995. He diverted city money to benefit his political party and reward supporters.

In September 2010, Le Monde revealed that the Nanterre public prosecutor obtained the telephone details of two journalists who were investigating the Bettencourt case, in which President Nicolas Sarkozy was involved. A few months later, Le Canard Enchaîné claimed that President Nicolas Sarkozy was personally supervising the surveillance of certain journalists covering cases harmful to him. The newspaper mentioned anonymous sources within the DCRI (French domestic intelligence agency) who revealed the existence of a group of several former intelligence officers who were performing surveillance. Nicolas Sarkozy was also suspected of having financed his 2007 campaign with funds from Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Since 2013, Paris public prosecutors have been investigating charges of “influence peddling,” “active and passive corruption,” and “forgery.” A businessman named Ziad Takieddine and former Libyan dignitaries revealed that Nicolas Sarkozy and the former secretary general of the Elysée Claude Guéant were directly involved in receiving cash from Gaddafi. Mr. Takieddine claimed that he was the intermediary, and transported 5,000,000 Euros in cash to Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior.

Budget Minister under President François Hollande Jérôme Cahuzac resigned in March 2013 after being accused of tax evasion, while being the Minister in charge of fighting tax fraud. He initially denied the facts before the French parliament and in French media, but recordings proving that he was indeed evading taxes emerged and led him to be expelled from the Socialist Party, prosecuted for incomplete or false declaration of assets, and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2016.

While the above examples are true and genuine affairs of state, one could ask if Benalla’s scandal is really one? The case is of a completely different order of magnitude than the law-breaking wiretappings, secrets organizations, or fraud cases we have seen under the Fifth Republic. In François Mitterrand’s case, the President personally ordered the wiretaps to spy on his rivals. In De Gaulle’s case, the SAC was an organization closely linked to a party, much more structured, and was doing trafficking. At the present moment, there is no evidence suggesting that Emmanuel Macron ordered his security aide to assault protesters. In fact, it is very likely that Alexandre Benalla was someone who acted on his own, impulsively, and assaulted the demonstrators. De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy cases are very different from Macron’s case.

The scandal for Macron comes from how the Elysée handled the Benalla’s case by covering up the crime after the fact. Macron built his legitimacy on morally regenerating the exercise of power in France. Benalla’s affair shows how amateur and informal things were in Macron’s closest aides. This was surely a popular disappointment and disenchantment, which the French media is exaggerating.  

If, in the course of the ongoing investigations, a security chain of command is discovered, and is above the law in a systemic way, it could create a true affair of state