By Harrison Stetler
It was one of the biggest scandals of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency — and three years later it’s ending in a whimper. This Friday marked the conclusion of the trial of the president’s former personal bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, convicted (among other things) of donning police clothing to violently beat up peaceful protesters and bystanders at Paris’s 2018 May Day rallies.
In the ruling handed down on Friday afternoon, Benalla was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence — though he is not set to do actual jail time. Rather, one year is to be sat out at his mother’s home outside Paris and the other two on parole. Handed a €500 fine and banned from carrying or owning a firearm for ten years, Benalla also faces a five-year ban from public service, though the sentence remains subject to a possible appeal.
“I’m no angel,” the hulky thirty-year-old admitted at the bar in his final defense plea on October 1. “I don’t always do things according to the rules, as shown by where I am today.” This mea culpa was confirmed by public prosecutors as they made their sentencing arguments late in September — requesting a far lighter sentence than the one the Paris courts ultimately handed down on Friday. Benalla’s multiple offences include deliberate violence committed in a group, unauthorized execution of a public function, holding an unlicensed handgun, and possession and use of an unauthorized diplomatic passport.
Prosecutors originally requested an eighteen-month suspended prison sentence, along with the other conditions related to firearms and public service. They deemed that Benalla had already been sufficiently “judged by the court of public opinion,” since he had been “branded by the red iron of social networks and hyper-mediatization.” By going beyond the prosecutors’ original demands, the judges have rejected this strange, backhanded indictment of investigative journalists and legitimate citizen concern over the conduct of the powerful.
The judges reserved similar treatment for Benalla’s accomplices and codefendants, including the police officials who colluded with him in the early stages of the case. A reservist former gendarme and an old friend of Benalla’s, Vincent Crase was a security attaché for Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party. Benalla’s right-hand man at the May Day events, Crase faces a two-year suspended jail sentence, a €500 fine, and a ten-year ban on owning a firearm.
Fellow defendants Maxence Creusat and Laurent Simonin, both policemen, were sentenced to a €5,000 fine and a three-month suspended prison sentence, respectively. The former police captain and police comptroller were accused of supplying Benalla with flattering CCTV footage of the May Day events as the press was about to break the story in July 2018. As Creusat’s attorney pleaded, this was a clumsy and misguided attempt to protect the “institution” of the presidency.
The November 5 decision thus brings to a close this chapter of Benalla’s legal troubles. But we shouldn’t forget the breadth of what was a full-fledged state scandal, offering a rare glimpse into the culture among Macron’s inner circle. These deeper problems were not on trial — and yet they continue to fester.
In fact, Benalla and Crase’s actions could very well have gone undisclosed to the public. Between May Day 2018 and July 18 that same year — the date that the scandal first broke, following an extended investigation by Le Monde — Benalla’s overzealousness was dealt with entirely in-house, with the severity of his offenses treated at a discount rate.
Already on May 4, the Élysée Palace had caught wind of Benalla’s activities three days earlier. Instead of alerting public prosecutors to the existence of this gross violation of power, the president’s staff handed the bodyguard a lenient fifteen-day suspension. By the end of the month, Benalla had resumed full duties and recovered his former privileges.
Were it not for the work of investigative journalists and the ensuing public outrage, Benalla’s excesses would have hardly affected his particularly close relationship with President Macron. As late as July 9, 2018 — less than two months after the end of his suspension and just days before the scandal came to engulf the presidency — Benalla was granted an apartment by the Seine in Paris’s posh Seventh Arrondissement. This privilege capped off Benalla’s already comfortable compensation: Le Parisien reported that Benalla was earning a cozy, nearly ministerial €10,000-a-month salary, which was not suspended during his forced hiatus.
Benalla’s return to grace was all the more jarring considering the president’s inner circle had very concrete reasons to worry about the story. Already on the evening of the May Day when Benalla donned the famous police garb, Taha Bouhafs, activist and former France Insoumise candidate turned journalist, published a video on Twitter showing a violent confrontation between riot police and protesters in the Contrescarpe Square.
At first glance, the scene captured in the two-minute clip was nothing out of the ordinary in a left-wing Twittersphere inundated by images of riot police rampaging through crowds of civilians. What came to set this video apart from the rest, however, is that it shows Benalla donning a riot-police helmet and leading a squadron of officers as they violently beat up a pair of civilians. Crase goes the extra step of repeatedly punching one woman while fully clad riot police drag her across the street. The camera, meanwhile, zeroes back in on Benalla, who grabs a young man, forces him to the ground, and beats him while surrounded by officers. With the camera focused back in on his face, he has the wherewithal to leave the civilian to the police officers and walk away, no doubt aware of what would happen should a presidential official be caught committing such a wanton display of violence.
Benalla had been authorized to attend the May 1 police operation as an observer. His main defense was that in that capacity he acted as any private citizen should: in sight of a crime — in this case, bystanders’ supposed interference in the conduct of a police operation — one must aid a public servant by bringing a perpetrator to authorities. In reality, this was a far cry from the scene on display in the footage posted by Bouhafs, which shows the helmeted presidential bodyguard directly leading the police action.
An odd coincidence — symptomatic of the two-track justice on display in France — is that as Benalla’s trial was entering its final days back in September, Bouhafs found himself before the courts, too. On September 28, Bouhafs was sentenced to pay as much as €3,500 for characterizing police union leader and officer Linda Kebbab as a “house Arab.”
When the Benalla scandal finally broke in July 2018, it led to months of scrutiny of the disgraced bodyguard’s other activities, and of the clemency with which he had been treated by Élysée higher-ups. It was quickly discovered that Benalla had benefited from unauthorized access to diplomatic passports, which he used even after he was ultimately dismissed from office.
A Mediapart investigation [editing note by Mediapart, available in English here] from September 2018 likewise unearthed a photo of Benalla taken on April 28, 2017, in a restaurant in Poitiers, as Macron’s campaign was approaching its second-round election victory over Marine Le Pen. Benalla and two friends pose for a simple selfie with a waitress — though Benalla was brandishing a Glock pistol, pointing it toward the server. In the first day of courtroom arguments this September 13, Benalla stuck to his long-held argument that this was a toy water gun.
The first chapter of the Benalla scandal has thus come to an anticlimactic end. But the rogue public servant’s legal headaches are not over yet. Benalla is still being investigated for a bevy of other accusations, including the disappearance of a safety box from his residence during the police investigation, shady ties with a Russian oligarch and crime boss, and potential false testimony before the Senate investigatory committee in the lead-up to its report published in early 2019.
But in this case, as with future legal hurdles for Macron’s foot soldier, it’s unrealistic to expect the courts to fully indict the culture of impunity among the French elite, or the sadistic catharsis of clamping down on civil disobedience. For some things, at least, the judgement will have to come in the “court of public opinion.”
- Harrison Stetler is a freelance journalist and teacher based in Paris.