A month is an eternity in politics
A month ago President Macron was pictured
- leaping ecstatically from his seat during the match
- happily drowned by the cataclysmic post-match downpour [Putin sheltered by Russia’s Single Umbrella]
- dabbing with Pogba
- singing with other players.
Bliss was it in those moments to be alive.
After the Lord Mayor’s Show, comes the shit-cart.
Just a few weeks ago, there was excitement, joy and pride in France’s World Cup victory. Exhilarated French-flag-waving had definitively been reclaimed from Le Pen’s ultra-right National Rally (formerly the Front National, before their latest attempt at whitewashing (sic) their racist past). Following France’s victory, celebrations lasted long that night. The players themselves shot endless footage: there was unrestrained dressing room joy, during what France Info understatedly described as ‘animated scenes’.
France (well, Marseille to a much lesser extent) delighted in discovering that the Greater Paris Region (aka Ile-de-France) was now recognised as the world’s top football talent pool, probably producing ‘more talent than Asia, Africa and North America combined’. Paris-based Simon Kuper wrote a good piece for ESPN in December 2017 … which he rehashed for the Financial Times [probably behind a pay wall] for publication the day before The World Cup Final … and then persuaded Le Monde in on the act with much the same piece (in French) 3 days post-Victory. Kuper wrote: ‘Football’s probably the most successful and inclusive sector of French life. It’s a model for your society – but it also shows that so much functions really well here despite your absurdly exaggerated national pessimism.’ [3 articles from 1 clever idea: clever journalist]
The Economist also drew on France’s win, pointing out that President Chirac’s popularity had leapt from 45% to 59% after France’s 1998 World Cup victory – and stayed over 50% for over 18 months, during a broad economic recovery. The magazine referred to Macron’s belief that liberal democracies need ‘heroes’ to fight against nationalists and populists: ‘In the 23 players and their manager who brought home the World Cup’ wrote The Economist, ‘the luckiest man in French politics has found his heroes.’
[These latter words were written soon after The Economist‘s earlier hit on the Seriously Unfortunate Timing Button. They penned a long piece about Macron: ‘In the face of strikes and protests, [Macron] has pushed through a series of reforms, from the labour market to the railways. He has made nursery school compulsory from the age of three, redesigned the university-entrance process and cleaned up Parliamentary expenses. Unemployment is on course to be 8.8% by the end of 2018, down from 10.1% in 2016. France has even made it to the World Cup Final. Mr Macron’s touch is not what it was. But his luck may not have run out yet.’ No. Maybe not yet. But a few days later.]
300,000 people went to the Champs Elysées to watch the World Cup being paraded. However, times had changed since France’s 1998 World Cup victory. Twenty years ago there were double that number, with that 1998 open-top bus taking over four hours on the Champs. That wasn’t going to be allowed to happen this time.
For the waiting thousands it was … blink and you missed it. Many had arrived at 11am to see The French Team parade Their World Cup. But it was after 6pm that evening when the Victory Bus finally sped down the Champs on its over-hasty way to the Elysée Palace and a Presidential reception. Discontent was expressed. Perhaps it was all down to the players being late for their very important date.
And that was perhaps the very moment when (forgive the expression) the wheels started to come off the bus. Complaints galore on social media: the speed of the drive down the Champs was contrasted with the subsequent two to three hours’ celebrations in the Presidential Palace.
A day later, Paris’s Préfet de Police felt constrained [was instructed?] to defend the speed of the Victory Bus down that ‘Most Famous Avenue in the World’. The Préfet went into some detail: ‘It’s a short journey’ he said. ‘It’s 1300 metres from the top of the Champs down to the roundabout. 1.3km in 12 minutes: that’s 6.5kph’.
Even a Presidential spokesperson was brought in to add heft. He tweeted: ‘Formal denial: there was never any request to speed up the drive down the Champs Elysées … President Macron respected the timetable requested by the French team … The victory of Les Bleus should not be marred by such a pointless controversy’.
Indeed, for a couple of days, President Macron was top of the world.
Can Jupiter be blinded by hubris? Must nemesis follow?
Macron’s first serious political crisis – in over 14 months since his May 2017 election – came from extreme left-field. Nothing to do with any substantive political issue, such as
- dire French productivity growth (+0.2% in Q2 2018, making 2017’s 2.3% so last year, and 2018 growth forecast by Banque de France to be 1.8%; some hopes!), nor
- difficult relations with Merkel to re-kickstart That Stumbling European Project and the creation of a Eurozone budget, nor
- unemployment marginally rising in Q2 2018, stubbornly remaining at 8.9%, nor
- the possible effects of the dramatic threatened transformation of the French public sector, with 3 percentage points to be cut from public expenditure by 2022, nor
- the EU’s migrant crisis [the Elysée now makes an official announcement that it’s prepared to accept ‘around 20’ of 87 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean by an NGO, working with Spain, Malta, Germany and Portugal following Italy’s anti-immigrant Government’s decision to close its ports to NGO rescue boats … and not forgetting that France had refused to let the Aquarius rescue-ship dock in France].
What caused serious shaking and aftershocks on Mount Olympus was no ‘crime’ but a ‘cover-up’. It all began with some 10-week-old ‘home’ movie footage.
On 18 July, two days after that triumphant World Cup Champs Elysées cavalcade, Le Monde got BenallaGate under way.
Le Monde published a film of President Macron’s 26-year-old self-styled ‘Head of Security’, Alexandre Benalla (Macron’s body man, a three-gun-owning Clint Eastwoodised Charlie Young for The West Wing‘s President Bartlet) acting as ‘observer’ (sic) of the May Day demonstrations, wearing an unauthorised police armband/helmet, dragging a female protester and beating a male ‘demonstrator’ (the two may/may not have earlier been throwing objects at the police).
Film of this attack had circulated on social media since 1 May. Le Monde identified Benalla, The Man At The President’s Side, as the miscreant. Every news outlet was in hyper-overdrive. Le Monde led with the story every day for a week.
France loves its sagas d’été: their big budget, summer TV mini-series. BenallaGate contained every element required for those of all political persuasions, and none … excepting those deeply-embarrassed Deputies from Macron’s own En Marche Party, left to fend for themselves over a long week of Presidential silence.
Drip, drip, drip. News
dripped spewed out several times a day. Questions amassed.
- How could the Elysées (ie Macron’s all-powerful Chief of Staff, Kohler) have known an awful lot about What Benalla Did on 2 May, yet deemed an appropriate punishment to be Benalla’s suspension from duties for a fortnight (plus formal warning: another ‘strike’ and you’re out)? Kohler later defended his ‘action’ as ‘the most serious sanction ever issued to a senior Elysées employee’.
- What did Benalla actually do for the President? Did he really have the keys to the President’s Le Touquet home? Did Benalla receive a grace and favour apartment, which he’d occupied once he’d been punished (not true says the Elysée Palace)? Was this really the same building in which President Mitterand’s mistress and child lived? Why did Benalla have a chauffeur-driven official car (with full bells and whistles aboard)?
- Why did no-one from the Elysée Palace report the attack to the judicial authorities?
- Why did Benalla have authority from the Elysée Palace to carry a weapon, authority for which had previously been refused by the Interior Ministry?
- Had The Authorities’ silence (cover-up?) transformed an attack by a senior Presidential employee on civilians into An Affair of State akin to those plots from the old days when French Presidents ran teams of heavies (parallel police forces) to ‘sort things out’?
- How did any of this fit with President Macron’s stated intention to create a Republic which was ‘exemplary and ‘beyond reproach’ and unlike those Good Old Days?
- Parliamentary Commissions were convened, running in parallel with judicial and police enquiries: anyone involved – and most claimed, including the Minister of the Interior and senior national police officers, according to their mutually conflicting testimonies, to be utterly uninvolved – turned up to the Committees to say that they knew almost nothing whatsoever about anything at all
- Why did 3 senior police officers pass to Benalla copies of CCTV footage held by the police (film of Benalla beating demonstrators)?
- Who was Benalla’s sidekick (‘kick’ being appropriate), an employee of the République en Marche Party, who (armed with a gun) joined with Benalla in giving a May Day beating to the two demonstrators?
- Had Benalla and Cruse also been involved in beating up other demonstrators in another part of Paris earlier that same May Day?
- What part is played in these revelations by ‘conflict’ between (warring) elements of the police – each of which has different roles in securing the President’s safety?
- Once Benalla had been initially sanctioned – and, supposedly, moved to a different role – how was Benalla (hiding in plain sight) pictured in front of President Macron on his private visit to Giverny on 13 July and once again in front of him [the President doing a bit of a Tommy Cooper] on the Champs Elysées on 14 July … with a return Benalla visit to the Champs Elysées two days later stood in the very front of the victorious French team bus [looking after the players’ luggage we were later told by a man who should know, Castaner, head of the President’s En Marche Party – but denied by Benalla himself]? Can Benalla be distantly related to Zelig?
The Opposition is not a dead parrot
The President’s En Marche Party, with its coalition partner (Democratic Movement), has an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. They won 350 of the 577 seats at June 2017’s Legislative Elections, in the wake of Macron’s Presidential victory. The Presidential majority had ruled the Lower House of Parliament mercilessly. Legislation was driven through virtually at will.
Finally, after 15 months of fruitless opposition, every Opposition Party in Parliament – through the entire political spectrum from the hard left’s France Unbowed to the ultra-right’s National Rally – was able to fight a non-stop guerilla war of Parliamentary procedure over a long week against the President’s BenallaGate silence.
Their tactics proved so successful that the Government even threw in its hand over proposed legislation on certain constitutional changes it wanted to introduce. The draft legislation was withdrawn to the Opposition’s delight.
And a week’s Parliamentary shenanigans culminated in the unprecedented sight of 2 separate motions of censure being brought against the Government. One presented by the (strictly-temporarily-aligned … blink and you’ll miss it) Socialist/Communist/France Unbowed left and another by Les Républicains right.
There was never any suspense concerning the outcome of the votes of confidence.
277 votes are required to bring down the Government. Les Républicains have 103 Deputies but managed to scrape together 143 votes for their censure motion (with support from 17 far-left France Unbowed and 14 Communist Deputies). The three Parties from the left cumulatively have 63 Deputies and got a grand total of … 74 censorious votes (no reciprocal support from Les Républicains for the left).
And the winners were … The Government. QED.
Still, there was Opposition pleasure to be gained in letting off steam and pretending that this was democracy in action. Prime Minister Philippe defended his Government’s record against the censure motions by highlighting the 41 statutes which had been passed by his Government since the start of their mandate.
Silence is Macronian
President Macron stayed as stum as stum can be. He endured a long silent week following Le Monde‘s BenallaGate film publication.
Storms of protest raged: but for the President (commenting from Madrid) it was all a storm in a tea-cup (or rather ‘in a glass of water’ in the version française). The President ignored every demand for a comment on the actions of his Action Man.
Ministers, senior police officers and senior members of the President’s team were summoned to Parliament to answer questions. All had flailed about providing contradictory and self-preserving denials of knowledge and/or responsibility. Interior Minister Collomb, former Socialist hard man and Lyon Mayor, was accused of lying to the Senate Committee about the extent of his knowledge of the affair. Paris’s Préfet de Police told a Committee of the National Assembly that the young couple who’d been assaulted had given false information about their identities to the police – this assertion turned out to be untrue. What the young couple actually did is still unknown, but they were certainly sent home by the police that evening without charge.
Constitutional lawyers opined as to whether the President himself could be required to face a Parliamentary Committee [the majority of experts claimed that that was not constitutionally correct].
All the while the man in the eye of that tea-cup storm remained aloof, apart, silent.
A week later, everything changed. The President dropped his (increasingly unsuccessful) Trappist approach to the crisis. He spake. But it was far from the address to the nation for which there had been such a clamour.
Mea culpa … sort of
Macron made a surprise visit to the former Home For Public Socialist Jollification (the Maison d’Amérique Latine) and ‘explained’ himself. What joy for tired, traumatised En Marche Deputies to find The Great (Recently Mute) Leader rocking up at their very own end of year En Marche garden party.
The President delighted his assembled En Marche Deputies. At first hearing. On further reflection, they might have felt his remarks were not wholly in the right register.
What better way to get your defence in first, the President must have mockingly thought, than by dismissing several nonsensical rumours about Benalla that had hit the internet. ‘He never had the nuclear codes … He’s not my lover.’ Laughter. Applause.
Benalla’s actions on 1 May, said the President, ‘were for me … a disappointment and a betrayal’. But, let’s be honest. This speech was a long way from being all bad news for Benalla. On his next job application, Benalla can note that the President, during his address, hailed his former body man’s ‘courage’, ‘talent’, ‘commitment’ (4 times) and even (cough! splutter! really? yes, really!) Benalla’s ‘dignity’.
The President said he, and he alone, was to blame. There would not even be, he made clear, any Deputy Heads rolling. No scapegoating. ‘The exemplary Republic doesn’t prevent mistakes. If they’re looking for the person who’s responsible, the sole person responsible is me, and me alone. It was me who confirmed the [over-lenient] punishment … If they want the person who’s responsible, he’s in front of you.’ [Surely that’s almost too much responsibility for one person alone to bear.]
‘Let them come and get me’
He concluded his evidently so-deeply-felt mea culpa (the best sort – where there’s zero sanction) with a Wild West-sounding gun-toting threat: ‘Let them come and get me. I will face the French people.’
BUT WHO ‘THEY’? Those Parliamentary Commissions which he’s above and beyond. Nah. Opposition Parties? Unlikely. They’ve had their 5 minutes in the sun. Judges perhaps? Not while that Presidential immunity is still all-envelopingly-protective. Journalists maybe? Now you’re talking. Doesn’t President Macron, every so often, just worryingly sound a bit like another well-known President? Shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the massed ranks of Presidential foot-soldiers: they lapped it up.
The day after this attempt to put BenallaGate to bed, journalists were once again seeking a considered response as the President wandered the Pyrenees. But what BFM-TV got, by way of a Presidential reply, was that over an hour no-one had raised BenallaGate. The President put the whole episode down to ‘the heat and exhaustion of Paris’. Marginally more polite than his previous accusation that the press ‘no longer looked for the truth’ and had decided there ‘should no longer be a presumption of innocence’.
Apart from Benalla finally losing his job, who/what was hurt?
- Short-term there’s been a serious further drop in Macron’s support. Ipsos showed the President at an all-time low: 32% satisfaction – dangerous territory. While YouGov has the President dropping 5 points in support to a mere 27%. [For comparison, Hollande was at 20% support at the equivalent time.] Pollster Ifop‘s director believes there’ll be a lasting long-term effect on the President’s image. With only 39% seeing Macron as ‘honest’ and ‘38%’ as sincere, that’s a bad image.
- The future Mrs Benalla got a bit of a surprise. She and Benalla were supposed to be getting married on the morning of 21 July. However, due to the regrettably enforced absence of her husband-to-be (helping the police with their enquiries following his arrest on the evening of 20 July on charges of violence by a public official, impersonating a police officer, illegal use of police insignia, and complicity in illegally trying to obtain surveillance footage), he was otherwise engaged and the wedding was duly cancelled
- Presuming his innocence, the French Freemasons’ Grand Lodge has pro tem, reports l’Express (in French) suspended Benalla’s participation in the ‘Knights of Hope Lodge’ which he’s ‘enjoyed’ since January 2017
- Benalla’s beard definitely took a major hit; his fizzog, hair, demeanour and clothes were transformed, post-sacking, as an integral part of a carefully modulated round of interviews from his original HARD MAN WITH A HARD LOOK
Stéphane Geufroi/OUEST FRANCE/MAXPPP
to a much more ROUNDED SYMPATHETIC CIVILISED MAN designed to appear (for his first EXCLUSIVE post-sacking interview) over 2 pages in Le Monde, followed by an EXCLUSIVE TV interview on TF1 (pre-condition for interview: it can’t be live, but pre-recorded to ensure no slip-ups) and a third EXCLUSIVE, long chat with Le Journal de Dimanche (in French) where Benalla
- revealed he’s ‘impulsive … but not violent’
- admitted he’d been ‘vigorous’ while on his May Day rampage, and
- said he’d seen ‘In The Line of Fire’ some 20 times [it’s a smashing film about secret service agent, Clint Eastwood, saving the President from a crazed John Malkovich … but 20 viewings?]
Ed Alcock / M.Y.O.P/LE MONDE
Le Journal de Dimanche did him proud with a seriously sympathetic rags (living with Mum, Bro and Sis in a 15 sq m apartment … overlooking a prison) to riches story of the little boy from the hood who had ‘climbed to the heart of Government’ headlined: ‘What I did for Macron’. As can be seen, Benalla’s been subject to a fair bit of what’s nowadays described locally (to the certain disgruntlement of those eminent guardians of the French language, l’Académie française) as a relooking. And this was all courtesy of several serious PR players who each have extremely close relationships with the Presidential inner circle.
And in another part of the forest, the National Rally calls on ultra-right sympathisers to rally round
Le Pen’s political party has been under investigation by EU/French authorities for its misuse of EU funds – Front National employees worked on French political activity rather than EU Parliamentary matters. Last month, French judges caused ultra-right apoplexy: payment to the recently re-baptised National Rally Party of the €2million advance on their annual political party subsidy (based on votes and seats won) was blocked.
‘Political conspiracy’ screeched the ultra-right. National Rally leader, Marine Le Pen, penned an open letter to her members. Urging them to ‘rise up against a dictatorship which wants to kill the main Opposition Party’ [FACTS: the former Front National has 6 of the 577 Deputies, 1 of the 348 Senators, and less than 0.3% of France’s local Councillors … but will certainly win more Deputies once constitutional changes introducing a dose of proportional election in Parliamentary Elections are made], Le Pen went on: ‘Two investigating judges in their offices are executing the National Rally without any judgement. To summarise, the death penalty is being applied as a precaution’.
Since, Le Pen said, ‘Democracy is in danger’ she was counting on like-minded ultra-Rightists to provide the wherewithal for staff and rent to be paid.
The decision on the National Rally’s appeal to the Court of Appeal against the blocking of their €2 million payment will be announced on 26 September. Meanwhile, the Party claims to have received enough mites from random widows moved by Le Pen’s hyperbolic prose to total ‘over €500,000 in donations’.
World Cup – a coda
Congratulations to those readers who followed my tip and bet on France (after those first 3 extremely embarrassing group games the odds were over 10-1 against France winning). But I must admit that my disdainful dismissal of any necessity for Prime Minister May to worry over whether she’d have to maintain her boycott of the World Cup was nearly upturned by a more buoyant English performance than expected.
An observation from deepest Brittany on French attitudes towards the ‘English’. Our small seaside café had a small group of regular football viewers for every match. [As predicted, serious crowds only turned out in force for France once the semi-final had arrived.] But what most surprised me was how England’s opponent in each match was the team to be supported … vociferously.
Hence, all those local Colombian-Swedes mutated over the days into Croat supporters. And finally into supporting even the Belgians. There may be French disdain for their Belgian neighbours, but there’s serious dislike of the real enemy, the Brits (ie, for these purposes, the English).