Ever since Alexandre Benalla, a now-former security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, was caught on video beating up demonstrators on May 1, France’s populists have been leading a political feeding frenzy. By focusing on Benalla, they hope to bring down another of Europe’s few remaining liberal leaders.
PARIS – The faults of Alexandre Benalla, a former top security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron who was caught on video beating up a demonstrator on May 1, are inexcusable. And it is well understood that Macron committed several errors of judgment by trusting for too long a young, inexperienced, showy bruiser who imagined himself to be a cop or a hooligan. Credit is owed to the journalists who compelled the Elysée Palace to end two and a half months of culpable silence and cut ties with Benalla.
But beyond this scandal lies a more chilling sequence of events. Paralyzed by Macron’s steady drumbeat of important reforms, his opponents found in the Benalla scandal, at long last, a good fight to fight. But no one should revel in the fact that it was far-right leader Marine Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélénchon who led the attacks on Macron for his silence about his thuggish aide. There was something deeply hypocritical in the spectacle of these old warhorses, who rely so often on their own redneck guerrillas, defending the police against the “militias.”1
Who are Le Pen and Mélénchon trying to kid in feigning concern for public civility when they only fan resentment and hostility? In an article published last Sunday in the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, officials in Mélénchon’s party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), smugly and cynically discuss plans to “raise the tone,” “hit” rival X or Y, “obtain” top-secret information on “article 40 of the code of criminal procedure,” and render the crisis sufficiently “important” to “damage the president.”1
But, however much the Vichyist Le Pen and the Maduro-manquéMélénchon might wish otherwise, the Benalla affair is no Watergate. It was a blunder that was quickly revealed by the press, triggering several judicial investigations and police inquiries, as well as a parliamentary commission requiring the appearance of the interior minister himself. With the state and government acting with such alacrity, covering up nothing, this is no grave scandal that should threaten a government. Macron’s underestimation of Benalla’s violence was a serious error, but it was not what Mélénchon, in an interview with Le Monde, called “an open door to a form of barbarism” and it certainly did not justify the subsequent paralysis of Parliament. And no citizen should rejoice in Mélénchon’s subsequent statement saying that he “disapproves” of “parliamentary institutions” and approves of those who “destroy them” and do “the work in our place.”
More alarming still is the stampede that followed. An 11-second clip from the original video of Benalla beating a demonstrator played in a loop on the news channels, running nearly simultaneously with grotesque speculations about the private life of the presidential couple. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, the emperor had no clothes; he was not stripped of them. And this band of political piranhas decided not to leave the least scrap of flesh on Macron.
We know this scene all too well. Our world has been animated by base desires and reactive immediateness for some time now. Nor is it new that the public, puffed up by the winds of the web as if by nationalist mantras, seems to have lost the inclination to be the people of a real, functioning democracy.
But rarely, it seems to me, has the abyss been plumbed so quickly. For the first time, the hysteria of certain media and commentators reached fever pitch almost immediately. Le Parisien, for example,ran the headline, “An Overly Special Adviser,” accompanied by a supporting suggestive photo, while public intellectual Michel Onfray’s blog described Benalla as “the favorite of the king” and “physically the closest” to him. The humming of tweets and Facebook forums became the hunger cries of a carnivorous chorus, motivated by one obsession: Devour Macron.
It is difficult not to think of a special sort of sans-culottes, devoid of a soul, drunk on themselves and cruelty. Confronted with a world turning wild and the rise of “democratatorships” and demagogues, there are too few leaders working to hold the line against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, fascism in Hungary and Poland, and the political earthquakes triggered by US President Donald Trump.
Macron is one of them. We can disagree with him on railway reform or the migrant crisis, on tomorrow’s budget or future spending cuts, on his indifference to former political veterans, or his obsession with being on the cutting edge. But, in a Europe adrift and a world on the edge of the abyss, we cannot take away from him the virtue of being one of the last who – partly owing to his famous “arrogance” – is capable of resisting the new nationalist international.3
Still, the populists smell blood in the water. Perhaps politicians of the traditional French right – for example Christian Jacob, Laurent Wauquiez, and Éric Ciotti – should concern themselves more with the state of the world than with today’s summer scandal. That is their decision. I have made mine. Faced with looming chaos and increasing devastation in Europe and beyond, I say to myself, and must say aloud: Benalla is a small fish. Focusing on him will only benefit the piranhas.