The politician who offers the electorate open, clean, honest government is like a developer who offers to build open, clean, sweet-smelling sewers. At the very least, he is a hostage to fortune, and more likely than not will end up regretting his offer.

French president Emmanuel Macron achieved power by seeming to be different from the tired old guard of France, besmirched by scandal of every sort. He was young, new, and dynamic. When he was elected, I couldn’t help thinking of the Peruvian peasant who, when asked why he voted for Alberto Fujimori, replied, “because I don’t know anything about him.” Because, be it noted, not despite.

Macron came seemingly out of nowhere, and so (even more so) did a 26-year-old man named Alexandre Benalla. A bodyguard for Macron during the electoral campaign, Benalla became a member of his inner circle once Macron was president. His responsibilities were vague and his sudden prominence displeasing to the normal administrative hierarchy. No information about his qualifications or accomplishments can account for his rapid ascent. I will not repeat the rumors that are common gossip.

That gossip wouldn’t have become so prevalent had Benalla, by then a prominent figure in Macron’s security detail, not attended the May Day demonstrations in Paris. As is often the way, some of the demonstrators did not behave well, and Benalla was filmed illegally wearing a police helmet and armband and enthusiastically beating one of the demonstrators. He stands accused of assault and impersonating a policeman. Bodyguards are not chosen for their gentility, but an agent of presidential security is not supposed to comport himself like the bouncer of a provincial nightclub, or do freelance riot control, apparently just for fun.

Macron was made aware of Benalla’s misbehavior (he was away in Australia at the time). Benalla was said to have been punished, but the sanction couldn’t have been too severe, because he subsequently was given an official flat to live in—rumored to be 200 square meters, very large by Parisian standards, the rent on such a flat being several thousand per month—and the use of an official car, of a type normally reserved for high functionaries.

The general public was made aware of Benalla’s conduct only seven weeks later, when Le Monde published the video online. It was only then that he was fired and arrested. During the following week, Macron said nothing, and when he did speak it was to accuse the media of trying to replace the judiciary. The affair has paralyzed the Assemblée nationale for a week, with all other business having been suspended.

An observer is tempted to ask why the affair has come to light now, so long after the initial event. Did someone hold back the video, waiting for an auspicious moment to make it widely known, so as to do the most possible damage to the president? Was this the moment to bring Macron back down to earth, with the president increasingly criticized for his monarchical manner and basking in the reflected glory of the French victory in the World Cup? The affair has not yet run its course, and though it will surely fizzle out, it is another nail in the coffin of Macron’s popularity. Impunity in high places can only promote disorder below.

One thing is certain: any politician who lives by cleanliness dies by dirt.     

Photo: Police92_Wikimedia Commons


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