French open judicial probe into beating by Macron aide

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In this Wednesday April 26, 2017 file photo, Emmanuel Macron, right, is flanked by his bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, left, outside the Whirlpool home appliance factory, in Amiens, northern France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
In this Wednesday April 26, 2017 file photo, Emmanuel Macron, right, is flanked by his bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, left, outside the Whirlpool home appliance factory, in Amiens, northern France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Paris (AP) — French authorities opened a judicial investigation Sunday of the beating of a protester in May by one of President Emmanuel Macron’s top security aides, an incident that was caught on camera and has sparked the first major political crisis of Macron’s tenure.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said Alexandre Benalla and four others went before a judge Sunday and charges could be brought in the case soon. Benalla, 26, faces possible charges of violence by a public official, illegal use of surveillance video and impersonating a police officer.

France’s Le Monde newspaper first made the video public on Wednesday. It showed Benalla, who handled Macron’s campaign security and remained close to him after he was elected, wearing a police helmet at a May 1 demonstration where the beating happened.

Surrounded by riot police, he brutally dragged a woman from the crowd and then repeatedly beat a young male protester on the ground. The man was heard begging Benalla to stop. The officers did not intervene.

Benalla was fired by the presidential palace Friday and investigators raided his house Saturday. However, the president’s office has been heavily criticized since it revealed last week that it knew about the assault before last week. Macron took office last year amid a pledge to restore integrity and transparency to the presidency.

Lawmakers were aghast to learn that Benalla initially received only a two-week suspension and still had an office in the presidential palace 2½ months after the beating instead of having been reported to judicial authorities.

Suspicion of a possible cover-up has surfaced over what appeared to be inconsistent answers from Macron’s office. It said last week that since May, Benalla had been working in an administrative role instead of security. But Benalla was photographed by the president’s side as his bodyguard during France’s July 14 national holiday.

Macron’s political adversaries have seized the opportunity. Les Republicans party leader Laurent Wauquiez said the government was “trying to conceal a matter of state”.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted: “If Macron doesn’t explain himself, the Benalla affair will become the Macron affair.”

Macron has remained silent about the behavior captured on video. Lawmakers plan to question Interior Minister Gerard Collomb this week as Macron’s government faces mounting criticism over how it initially disciplined Benalla.

Macron’s office has said Benalla only was supposed to be accompanying officers to the May protest as an observer.

The four others under investigation are Vincent Crase, who worked for Macron’s political party and was with on the day of the attack, as well as three police officers suspected of illegally passing footage of the events to Benalla earlier this week.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it has asked for Benalla and Crase to be prohibited from possessing weapons or working in any public function.