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article imageFrench Senate demands probe into Macron aides over bodyguard scandal

By VĂ©ronique MARTINACHE (AFP)     Feb 20, 2019 in World

A French Senate commission on Wednesday demanded an investigation of three close aides to President Emmanuel Macron after finding "major flaws" in the government's handling of a scandal involving an ex-bodyguard to the president.

The commission also recommended that the former bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, face further prosecution for lying to the parliamentary body during its seven-month investigation.

In its final report the commission accused three top Macron aides, including his chief of staff, of "omissions", "inconsistencies", and "contradictions" in their testimony to senators over the Benalla scandal, triggered by a video showing him roughing up protesters during a May Day rally.

The "Benalla Affair" has already caused major embarrassment for Macron, a former investment banker elected in 2017, after it triggered a wave of accusations from critics that his presidency tried to cover it up.

The commission said it found "major flaws" in the state's handling of the case, which it said affected both the president's security and "national interests".

It suggested that chief of staff Patrick Strzoda, presidency secretary Alexis Kohler and security chief Lionel Lavergne, might have "withheld significant truth" during their testimony and called on prosecutors to look into their statements.

It also called for Benalla, 27, to be further investigated for possible false testimony under oath to the commission, an offence that is punishable by up to seven years in jail.

Paris prosecutors on Wednesday said they had opened another probe into Benalla for allegedly obstructing investigations by "concealing evidence".

- 'Filled with untruths' -

Benalla was placed in provisional detention on Tuesday after the former staffer allegedly broke the conditions of his bail.

He already faces criminal charges after it emerged in July that he was the man in a police helmet filmed roughing up protesters during a 2018 May Day demonstration in Paris, which he was attending as an observer.

French President Emmanuel Macron's office dismissed the senate report has filled with errors an...
French President Emmanuel Macron's office dismissed the senate report has filled with errors and said it would provide a detailed response

"What was seen on May 1 could be just the tip of the iceberg," said Senate commission president Philippe Bas.

The government dismissed the Senate report as "filled with untruths" and said a detailed government reaction would shortly.

"The Elysee will have the opportunity to provide factual answers on many obvious untruths present in the report," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said, referring to the presidential palace.

The Senate criticism comes at a tough time for the centrist president with his approval rating sharply down since his 2017 election as he struggles to end months of anti-government protests over his economic reforms.

- Insider status -

Macron's critics point out that Benalla was initially only suspended from work for two weeks, and not reported to authorities, when the video emerged.

"Benalla from the start has been given cover and protected by Emmanuel Macron," Jean-Lin Lacapelle, a delegate from the far-right National Rally opposition party, told French news channel BFMTV.

"The scandal is far from finished and now justice must do its job, but Emmanuel Macron will be held accountable. "

Even after he was sacked in August, Benalla continued to cause headaches for Macron, boasting in December that he was still in touch with him.

In an interview with investigative website Mediapart, Benalla said he continued to give Macron advice via the Telegram messaging app, which the president uses intensively.

The government dismissed those comments as an attempt to smear Macron.

Benalla is also under investigation over his continued use of diplomatic passports after he was fired.

He admitted visiting around a dozen African countries for "consulting" purposes and claimed he always gave an account of his trips to the president or his aides.

But officials suspect he may have been trying to benefit commercially from his former insider status.

A ex-bouncer, Benalla began working as a bodyguard for Macron during his election campaign in 2016 before being promoted to a senior security role in the presidential palace following Macron's election in May 2017.

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