July 25, 2018 / 11:56 AM / 3 months ago

Macron's blunt response to bodyguard scandal sparks fresh anger

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron came under fresh criticism from opposition leaders on Wednesday after appearing to dare opponents to take him on over a scandal surrounding his senior bodyguard and ripping into the media in front of supporters.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron, flanked by Elysee senior security officer Alexandre Benalla, leave the polling station after voting in the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections in Le Touquet, France, June 11, 2017. Picture taken June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Critics say Macron’s office failed to properly punish Alexandre Benalla, the head of his security detail, or refer him promptly to judicial authorities over an incident which has sparked the biggest political crisis of his tenure.

Footage showed Benalla, who was fired on Friday, hitting a male protester and dragging away a woman while off duty and wearing a riot helmet and police tags.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Benalla’s office at the Elysee palace had been searched as part of a judicial inquiry into the matter, but gave no other details.

Appearing at a closed-door event in front of his own lawmakers and ministers on Tuesday, Macron said he alone was responsible for what happened. “If they want to hold someone responsible, he is standing before you, they can come and get him,” he said, in a video leaked to the media.

Opposition leaders dismissed the comments as bravado.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron, flanked by Elysee senior security officer Alexandre Benalla, leave the polling station after voting in the first of two rounds of parliamentary elections in Le Touquet, France, June 11, 2017. Picture taken June 11, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

“EVERYTHING IS FINE”

“It’s sort of giving the finger, what he did yesterday night, a finger to the opposition, journalists, the press, and even the French when he says ‘They can come and get me’,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of the conservative party in the upper house of parliament, told France 2 television.

Far-left lawmaker Alexis Corbiere accused Macron of trying to bully the opposition.

Macron also slammed the media, echoing language that has been used by U.S. President Donald Trump to defend his own actions.

The crisis began when the newspaper Le Monde identified the man beating the protester on a video as Benalla.

“We have a press that is no longer pursuing the truth,” Macron said. “What I see is media power that wants to become judicial power.”

The head of Human Rights Watch in France, Benedicte Jeannerot, tweeted that Macron’s remarks were “dangerous rhetoric while journalists across the world are under attack by populist leaders and autocrats to discredit or stifle any criticism of power”.

French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by Alexandre Benalla, French presidential aide, leaves his home to play tennis in Le Touquet, France, June 17, 2017. Picture taken June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Macron was unapologetic when pressed to comment on Wednesday during a visit to southern France. “I have been here for an hour and nobody has brought the issue up,” he told BFM television. “Clearly, the heat and fatigue are getting to Parisians because here everything is fine.”

Additional reporting by John Irish, Matthias Blamont; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Stamp

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