Macron’s summer of discontent

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

‘It could be argued that getting out of the office to beat up some leftists is a good way to work up an appetite for lunch,’ one of France’s more cynical millionaires tells me, admiring Alexandre Benalla, 26, a recently fired security aide to President Emmanuel Macron. Benalla had rushed from his office at the Elysée Palace to brawl with members of La France Insoumise, the tattered remnants of the French left, who were demonstrating outside. Tally-ho! Right on.

Except that you really are not allowed to do that, especially in the age of camera phones. And the more that comes out about this story, the weirder it becomes. What did Macron know and when did he know it? Who protected Benalla? Who leaked the story to Le Monde?

More importantly, what does this mean for the rentrée politique, rushing towards us, when Macron will launch a second and even more ambitious phase of his drive to reform France? Also telling is how Macron has ruthlessly handled this crisis. It is extremely revealing of his method, which is slippery. Do not underestimate him.

Let us start with the nature of the tempest. Not just the scandal itself, but what the scandal tells us about the nature of Macronism. Here we have a story worthy of Stendhal, although very much of our time. Alexandre Benalla, born in Normandy, of a family with Moroccan origins, seeks his fortune in the bright lights of the big city. A minor socialist party activist, police enthusiast, part-time gendarme and bodyguard to various party celebrities including former president François Hollande, he seems at one point to have been some kind of protégé of Eric Plumer, the socialist party security chief.

Benalla worked briefly for Hollande’s industrial renewal minister Arnaud Montebourg but was fired a week into his assignment after causing a car accident. The downfall? Not yet. Benalla is miraculously reborn, attaching himself to Macron’s campaign in 2016 where his name appears frequently in the Macron email leaks, demanding procurement of various non-lethal weapons. Benalla was apparently nicknamed Rambo. Which might give any competent HR department pause. Or maybe French politicians like to have a thug at hand? Or maybe it’s something else.

It seems remarkable that this curious individual, with his ties to the socialist party, and to suggestions of Islamic human rights activism, smoothly insinuated himself into the court of the Macrons. Just how intimate was his relationship with Emmanuel and Brigitte? Why did he have a security clearance? A gun? Benalla’s lawyer is now portraying his client as a victim of a witch hunt (yes!). Meanwhile, Benalla has been banished from the palace, three senior Paris police commanders have been fired and the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, has had to grovel before the National Assembly. Macron, after several gnomic days in which he nevertheless had time to welcome Brigitte Bardot to the Elysée, finally pronounced, with the Trump card, so to speak, of dismissing the media’s coverage as fake news. No more beautiful two words have ever been discovered by politicians.

He began by offhandedly suggesting that of course he in the end was responsible, before mocking many of the allegations as false. It is worth examining Macron’s statement in detail.

Macron: ‘Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes.’

One hopes the President is telling the truth but Benalla did have a secret-defence security clearance and received sensitive daily intelligence briefings on police and security service operations.

Macron:  ‘Alexandre Benalla has never lived in a 300 square metre [grace and favour] flat.’

Well, he never lived in it because it was about to be redecorated at a cost to the state of a couple of hundred thousand euros. And the allegation is usually that it is 200 square metres, which is still substantial.

Macron: ‘Alexandre Benalla has never earned €10,000.’

But did he earn €100,000 a year? Why the high-end voiture de fonction? The chauffeur?

Macron: ‘Neither has Alexandre Benalla ever been my lover.’

What did he say? No respectable media had at this point suggested any such thing, though in low café-bars it is true that various jokes have been made, although with the suggestion that he might have been Brigitte’s. Was this deflection?

Macron: What happened on 1 May was ‘serious … and for me a disappointment and a betrayal. But that’s it.’

Voilà! Macron turned himself into the victim, which is a neat trick, when the nation is baying for one’s blood.

What any of this means or proves is hard to say. Macron’s government survived two no confidence votes on Tuesday. But the scandal does afford an unscripted glimpse of a Paris in the second year of the court of Macron, in which some are definitely more equal than others, and truth is shamelessly manipulated to suit the narrative of the President.

The President has been promising an even tougher round of reforms in the autumn, including three of infinite political complexity. The first is pension reform, a system ridden with anomalies, privileges, inexplicable costs and obscure investment and political activities that seem to attenuate the value of stakeholder pensions. The second is the system of social security and unemployment benefit which can see thousands a month paid for years to people who have simply decided to live off the state. And the last is the hopelessly bloated civil service, which employs 5.6 million officials and gorges on nearly 58 per cent of French GDP. Macron wants to reduce their number by 500,000, but just stopping hiring any more would be a start.

Macron’s biggest enemy is himself. His personal style is getting up the noses of many French people. De Gaulle could get away with grandeur, but Macron lacks stature and age and is not what the French call sympathique. It is an oddness of his movement that nobody genuinely seems to adore Macron. He has none of the personal charisma that attached to such characters as Chirac, d’Estaing or even Sarkozy, and there’s something a bit creepy about him. The Benalla affair is not definitive but it reveals a side of the court of Macron that many voters will not have liked.

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