French President Emmanuel Macron said he was ready to take responsibility for the handling of a scandal over violence by a disgraced top security aide dubbed as "Benallagate." Critics say Macron's office failed to properly punish Alexandre Benalla, the head of his security detail, or refer him promptly to judicial authorities over the incident, which has sparked the biggest political crisis of his tenure.
At a gathering of lawmakers from his Republic on the Move party, Macron said he felt "betrayal" over the actions of his now-fired aide Alexandre Benalla, who faces charges of assault and impersonating a police officer.
"If they are looking for the accountable person, he is in front of you," Macron said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Agence France-Presse (AFP). "The only person responsible for this affair is me and me alone. I am the one who trusted Alexandre Benalla." He added that Benalla had been a supporter during his campaign and a loyal employee, but that the acts of May 1 were "serious and have been a disappointment for me, a betrayal."
Macron has so far refused to speak to the public on the worst scandal to hit his government since he was elected in May 2017, promising to restore integrity to French politics. He has called off yesterday's scheduled appearance along the Tour de France route in southern France, though his office insists the move was unrelated to the scandal. He also posted his first tweet in five days Tuesday, an unusually long absence for the social media-savvy president, to offer condolences to victims of the wildfires raging in Greece.
The scandal comes as Macron's ratings slump, with 60 percent reporting an unfavorable opinion in an Ipsos poll published Tuesday, a record low for the centrist. An Elabe poll, released before Macron spoke on the issue, found 80 percent were "shocked" by the "Benallagate" affair, with 75 percent urging Macron to break his silence. "The problem isn't Benalla's misconduct but rather the structure that made it possible," said Bruno Cautres, a political scientist in Paris. "No matter the administrative or judicial consequences of this affair, it will mark a before and after for Emmanuel Macron."
The crisis began when the newspaper Le Monde identified the man beating a protester on a video as Benalla. Videos have emerged over the past week showing 26-year-old Benalla hitting a young man during May Day demonstrations in Paris while wearing a riot officer's helmet and police armband, and wrestling a woman to the ground. Macron's aides did not inform prosecutors about the incident, despite a law requiring public officials to alert authorities if laws are broken. The scandal has prompted furious opposition claims of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies. Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May and transferred to an administrative role, though he was repeatedly seen in Macron's security details until he was finally fired on Friday.