The Benalla affair is just one manifestation of Emmanuel Macron's opaque and authoritarian style of government.

This month, French President Emmanuel Macron's former advisor Alexandre Benalla went on trial, accused of impersonating a police officer and assaulting protesters at the Labour Day demonstrations in France in 2018.

In many ways, his story has highlighted the shadowy nature of the French state and, in particular, Macron's Presidency.

It all began on May Day 2018, where around 55,000 people took to the streets to protest Macron's plans to freeze public sector wages, cut sick pay provisions and social employment schemes.

After the demonstrations, a member of the public uploaded disturbing footage that appeared to show a police officer beating a protester to the ground and stamping on his abdomen with no provocation.

It was soon recognised that the "police officer" was not a police officer at all, but was in fact, the Deputy to President Emmanuel Macron's Cabinet Chief, Alexandre Benalla, dressed up as a police officer.

Yet despite the apparent seriousness of Benalla's reactions, Macron's office seemed content to ignore the incident, potentially with the hope that it would go away.

Benalla was handed a mere two-week suspension from his post. The public prosecutor did not report the incident despite it being a legal requirement under Article 40 of the French penal code that all public service employees must immediately report any offence they've been made aware of to the judicial authorities.

It was also later revealed that hours before the revelations were published, several high-ranking police officers colluded with Benalla to steal state CCTV footage of the incident and that they had also been suspended.

Macron eventually broke his silence on the matter in July 2018 in a televised speech to his party officials. "If you're looking for the person responsible for this, then it's me and only me," Macron said, adding, "[m]y team at the Elysee Palace did what it had to do."

He also denied that Benalla was his lover or that he had ever had France's nuclear codes. It was almost like he was deliberately making a mockery of the incident.

But this story, more than just a scandal of one official, is that the public inadvertently stumbling over an alarming manifestation of Macron's opaque and authoritarian style of government.

Shady dealings

Since taking office, Macron has centralised powers to his officer and empowered a circle of influential personal staff whose responsibilities and identities are difficult to establish. Benalla is just one of them.

Investigations by the French press revealed that after Macron took office, Benalla moved into a building near the Eiffel Tower officially belonging to the Elysee Palace (this same building was once used to secretly house the mistress and daughter of former President Francois Mitterrand), where he managed the President's security.

This is somewhat strange given France already has a special security unit tasked with protecting the President (the GSPR), so why create this new post for a 26-year-old man with barely any experience in security work?

Benalla was dismissed from his role as Deputy Cabinet Chief in the summer of 2018, and Macron's government denies that he has worked for them in any official capacity since then.

But a few months later, it was revealed by MediaPart that three weeks after the May Day incident, Benalla was given a special diplomatic passport by the government. 

He had continued to use this to conduct numerous business trips to Israel and several African countries. However, it's unclear why Benalla was issued this passport since his security role did not officially include any diplomatic duties, nor why it wasn't rescinded after he stopped working for Macron.

Benalla's trips abroad included several meetings with Alexandre Djouhri in London. Djouhri is a French-Algerian businessman who was arrested in 1981 for armed robbery of a jewellery store but released due to lack of evidence, and in 2020 was extradited to France on charges of embezzlement of public funds and corruption.

Specifically, Djouhri is suspected of illegally laundering money from the Libyan regime of Colonel Qaddafi to fund former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Benalla also travelled to Chad (a French colony until 1960). While there, he met with Oumar Deby, the head of Chad's Directorate-General of Strategic Reserves, a state security force accused of human rights abuses and killings of civilians. 

Benalla's visit to Chad was just two weeks before an official visit to the country by President Macron. Macron's office later issued a statement saying that they had "no further contact of any sort" with Benalla and that the timing of their visits were unrelated.

The whole Benalla affair must be understood in the wider context of Macron's authoritarian rule.

Earlier this year, new legislation was passed making it illegal to "maliciously" share images identifying police officers whilst carrying out their duties, making the release of the footage which initially exposed this scandal potentially unlawful. In his egotistically titled book 'Macron By Macron', Macron wrote that he believed there was a void in French politics that democracy could not fill by itself.

This void was "the presence of a King, a King whom fundamentally, I don't think the French people wanted dead", he stated, adding that, "[t]he Revolution dug a deep emotional abyss, one that was imaginary and shared: the King is no more!"

It is perhaps of little surprise then that Macron intends to rule as a King.

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