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French Interior Minister Defends Handling of Macron Aide Scandal

FILE - French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, May 13, 2018. He is defended his handling of a video showing a top security aide to President Macron hitting a May Day protester.
FILE - French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, May 13, 2018. He is defended his handling of a video showing a top security aide to President Macron hitting a May Day protester.

France's interior minister on Monday defended his handling of a video showing a top security aide to President Emmanuel Macron hitting a May Day protester, a scandal that has rocked the government and prompted accusations of a cover-up.

Speaking before a parliamentary commission, Gerard Collomb said his staff told him about the video on May 2, the day after Alexandre Benalla beat the man during a police operation to clear protesters from a Paris square.

But Collomb, who had faced calls to resign from opposition lawmakers, said his staff had informed the police and Macron's office about the incident.

"It was up to them to respond," he said, adding that it was not his role to inform prosecutors.

Benalla is seen wearing a police helmet and armband in the video and Collomb told lawmakers he was also in possession of a police radio — even though he was only there as an observer, accompanied by an officer who was supposed to ensure he did not participate.

Collomb said he did not know who invited Benalla to observe the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by clashes between police and 200 violent demonstrators who smashed shop windows.

He also said that while observers are routinely invited for such operations and equipped with protective equipment, he did not know who provided Benalla and an associate, Vincent Crase, with armbands and radios.

"That is what the IGPN [police oversight body] is surely going to determine in its report," he said.

Paris police chief Michel Delpuech was scheduled to appear before the panel later Monday.

Despite mounting pressure Macron has yet to speak publicly on "Benallagate," which is swiftly becoming the most damaging scandal since he won the presidency last year promising to restore integrity to government.

On Monday, Macron called off his scheduled appearance Wednesday at the Tour de France cycling race, though aides insisted the cancellation was unrelated to the case.

Pressure mounts

Opposition lawmakers have seized on the affair, with some accusing the government of covering up the alleged violence committed by Benalla and Crase, a security agent employed by Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party.

Both men were charged Sunday with assault, while Benalla is also charged with impersonating a police officer.

Three police officers have also been charged with providing police surveillance footage of the protest to Benalla so that he could claim he was justified in striking the man.

Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay over the incident in May, but it was not clear why prosecutors were not informed of the video and alleged violence.

"In my opinion it's up to those responsible in their administrations, closest to the facts, to gather any elements which would justify informing prosecutors of an infraction," Collomb said.

Parliament revolt

Benalla, 26, was fired Friday after French daily Le Monde published a video taken by smartphone showing him striking a man at least twice as riot police looked on while breaking up the demonstration.

Le Monde later posted another video showing Benalla violently wrestling a young woman to the ground during the scuffles on a square near the Rue Mouffetard, on the Left Bank.

The man and woman seen in the videos have come forward and plan to testify, a source close to the inquiry said.

The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, who have announced investigations by both the National Assembly and Senate.

Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was allowed this month to move into an apartment in a palatial mansion along the Seine reserved for Elysee staff.

He was also provided with a car and chauffeur, the paper said.

And while the Elysee said Benalla had been transferred to an administrative role after the incident, he has nonetheless been seen several times since then in Macron's security detail.

The scandal could hardly have come at a worse time for Macron, whose approval ratings fell to a record low of 39 percent last week, defying analysts' expectations of a boost following France's World Cup triumph.