PARIS – A former security aide to French President Emmanuel Macron who triggered a political crisis when he was identified as having beaten up a protester during a 2018 May Day demonstration went on trial Monday on a dozen charges, including voluntary violence, illegally wearing a police badge and carrying a weapon.
Alexandre Benalla, 30, faces up to seven years in prison and 100,000 euros ($118,000) in fines if found guilty.
Benalla’s actions, and the way Macron’s office clumsily handled them, caused the French leader’s first major presidential crisis and discredited his efforts to clean up politics.
At the heart of the controversy was Benalla’s murky role at the presidential Elysee Palace — where a police security contingent is charged with protecting the president — and whether Macron’s presidency had a hidden side deal with Benalla. Intense media coverage and a televised parliamentary inquiry that put top Elysee officials, normally invisible to the public, at center stage turned the Benalla affair into a political soap opera.
Questions that have been raised include why the aide stepped into the role of a police officer in the May Day confrontation as real police stood by watching. Benalla was allegedly at the demonstration as an observer. Among other mysteries was why Benalla held two diplomatic passports, used for travel to African countries, after being dismissed from his ill-defined job at the presidential palace.
A further investigation was opened when a photo showed Benalla with a gun at his hip while serving as a security aide for Macron during his presidential campaign in 2017. It's for illegally carrying a firearm that Benalla faces a possible seven-year sentence.
Taking the stand, Benalla spoke of being “surprised” by his arrest, because “I felt like I had done something positive for society (that day) by arresting delinquents. And I was taken into police custody.”
Benalla is being tried with three other people, two of them police officers who shared with him video-surveillance images showing him dealing blows to a demonstrator. The tip-off is a violation of professional secrets.
Hundreds of violent demonstrators had invaded the traditional May 1 march by unions when Benalla moved into action in a small Left Bank square.
"It was war,’’ Benalla told investigators, insisting that as an observer he had no intention of acting violently but intervened because it was his duty as a citizen.
Benalla was initially given a 15-day suspension from his job before returning and heading security for the French soccer team’s victory parade down the Champs-Elysees Avenue on Bastille Day after winning the 2018 world championship. He was placed under investigation later in July and, amid public outcry, fired from his job at the presidential palace.