Ex-Macron bodyguard in custody over use of diplomatic passports

Former Elysee senior security officer Alexandre Benalla, center, leaves a Senate committee as he is quizzed over his close ties to France’s leader in Paris in this Sept. 19, 2018 file photo. — AFP

PARIS — A 27-year-old former bodyguard to French President Emmanuel Macron was taken into police custody on Thursday over his continued use of diplomatic passports after he was fired for roughing up protesters, prosecutors said.

Alexandre Benalla was a security official and a member of Macron’s inner circle before his dismissal last summer after a video emerged of him assaulting protesters at a May Day demonstration while wearing a police helmet.

The video — and claims that Macron’s office tried to cover up the affair by initially handing Benalla a mere two-week suspension and failing to report him to the authorities — caused a political storm that severely dented the president’s popularity.

Benalla was eventually sacked on Aug. 1 but to Macron’s dismay he landed back in the headlines after it emerged he had retained two diplomatic and two service passports after losing his job.

Benalla used the documents to travel to Africa for meetings with top officials, including Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, in what some officials suspect was an attempt to profit from his former insider status to drum up private business.

On Thursday, he was being held on suspicion of abuse of trust and illegal use of professional documents.

He is also accused of forging and using forged documents as well as “obtaining an administrative document under false pretenses”, prosecutors said.

Benalla has claimed that he returned the passports shortly after being dismissed from the presidency but that they were handed back to him by an official in the presidency in October.

Appearing before a Senate committee probing the affair, Macron’s chief of staff Patrick Strzoda said on Wednesday that Benalla had used his diplomatic passports “some 20 times” over the past six months.

The issuing of one of the passports, in June 2018, has raised suspicions with Strzoda explaining that it was done by way of an unsigned letter typed on official presidential office stationary.

“We suspect forgery by Mr. Benalla,” he added, saying the matter has also been referred to police.

Benalla has been a thorn in Macron’s side ever since Le Monde newspaper in July revealed him to be the man caught on camera attacking protesters at a May Day demonstration.

He has continued to cause blushes for his former boss, boasting to the press in December that the president continued to solicit his advice.

“We exchange messages on lots of different subjects. It’s often like, ‘how do you see things’. It could be about the ‘yellow vests’ (protest movement), the views on someone or security issues,” he claimed.

Macron’s office countered by accusing Benalla of “wanting to avenge his sacking by peddling a host of untruths and inaccuracies”.

A former bouncer, Benalla began working as a bodyguard for Macron during his election campaign in 2016 before being promoted to a senior security role in the presidential palace in May 2017.

The close ties between the two men led to a flurry of rumors, and, in July, Macron even joked to ruling party MPs about it.

“Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes. Alexandre Benalla has never lived in a 300 square meter (government) flat (...) Alexandre Benalla has never earned EUR10,000, neither has Alexandre Benalla ever been my lover,” Macron said to wild laughter.

But the whole matter left a bad taste with public opinion, all the more so as Macron had promised during campaigning to restore integrity to public office.

The bickering between the presidential palace and the interior ministry over the affair is said to have been a factor behind the October resignation of Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, one of Macron’s earliest and most influential backers.

“It’s the end of innocence,” Socialist leader Olivier Faure said at the time.

“We can no longer look at Emmanuel Macron and his majority as if they haven’t lied, betrayed and hidden the truth,” he added. — AFP