French government survives confidence votes over Benalla scandal
The centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday survived confidence votes called by both the left and right over the scandal surrounding a top security aide who was filmed manhandling demonstrators at a Paris protest.
There was little chance of bringing down the government given the comfortable majority enjoyed by Macron’s Republic On The Move (LREM) party in the lower-house National Assembly.
But opposition lawmakers seized the opportunity to denounce a “constitutional crisis” following revelations that Macron’s office knew top security aide Alexandre Benalla, had roughed up two protesters while posing as a police officer.
Macron’s office gave him a two-week suspension after learning of a video showing the incident, but did not report it to prosecutors.
Several have demanded that the government “explain itself” over the worst scandal since Macron took office in May last year.
“Since the acts under scrutiny appear to have been covered up by free passes at the highest levels of the state, there is indeed a ‘Benalla affair’,” Socialist MP Valerie Rabault told Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and other cabinet ministers ahead of the votes.
“The disease runs deep — it’s called presidentialism”, said leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, accusing Macron of holding himself above parliament and the judiciary.
But only 143 MPs voted in favour of the confidence vote brought by rightwing parties, far short of the absolute majority of 289 votes needed to topple the government.
The confidence vote called by leftwing groups also failed, garnering just 74 votes.
– New allegations –
Numerous senior officials have already been hauled before parliamentary commissions over their responses to the affair, with LREM chief Christophe Castaner the latest to appear on Tuesday.
Macron has dismissed the scandal as a “storm in a teacup” but his opponents have continued to heap criticism on his handling of it, calling on him to address the nation.
The affair has taken a toll on the president’s poll ratings, which are at their lowest since the former investment banker won the presidency last year on pledges to restore integrity and transparency to government.
Benalla, Macron’s 26-year-old former chief bodyguard, was charged with assault and impersonating an officer after the video showing him hitting a protester and wrestling another while wearing a police helmet was published by French daily Le Monde this month.
He was also wearing a police armband at one point and was in possession of a police radio, though in hearings officials have said they do not know how he got them.
Days after the video emerged his was fired.
Prosecutors on Monday opened a new investigation over allegations from two more protesters that Benalla also manhandled them, hours before the incident that sparked the scandal.
In several media interviews, he has insisted that he was trying to help the police by bringing aggressive demonstrators under control, and that he himself did not use violence.
He was wearing a helmet that he was given for his own protection while attending the protest as an observer, he added.
LREM lawmakers have dismissed the votes as an attempt to derail Macron’s reform drive, with the debate over planned constitutional amendments already set back by the row.
“Trying to bring down a government and its reforms because one official went out of control?” tweeted LREM spokesman Gabriel Attal.
Macron will be hoping for some respite as MPs head off on their summer break Wednesday.
Confidence votes are fairly common in France: there have been more than 100 since the current constitution was adopted in 1958.
Only once has such a move actually brought down a French government, that of Georges Pompidou in 1962.