SARLIAC-SUR-L’ISLE, France — President Emmanuel Macron was furious. “I didn’t come here to see you!” he shot back late last week at the small band of journalists peppering him with questions in this southwestern French village.
Mr. Macron had come to France’s rural heartland, where the economy is less than shining, hoping to connect with ordinary people, lift his sagging poll numbers and shed his image as the aloof, coldhearted president of the rich.
Instead, it was a scandal surrounding his security chief, Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on video beating up a May Day protester — and Mr. Macron’s refusal to answer questions about it from reporters — that once again underscored what his critics deride as his monarchical management style.
In the days since, the “Benalla affair,” as it has become known, has developed into the biggest crisis of his young presidency, barely more than a year old.
Mr. Macron’s political opponents are having a field day with the affair, saying it typifies an opaque, unresponsive and insular presidency populated by a tight band of ultraloyalists.
Mr. Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and a relatively untested politician, seems to keep providing them with ammunition.
“You are the only ones who are interested in this,” Mr. Macron snapped at the journalists following him, before turning his back and returning to greet the small crowds.
But even in the crowd, not everyone was benevolent, and Mr. Macron’s assessment of the Benalla affair was off key. It is consuming Parliament, threatening the future of at least one close associate and, for now at least, derailing Mr. Macron’s reformist agenda.
On Monday, an unusual parliamentary investigative commission hastily convened to interrogate Mr. Macron’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, a close ally, about his handling of the matter. Some lawmakers called for his resignation, even as Mr. Collomb sought to deflect blame from himself, saying that he had informed the president’s office and the police about Mr. Benalla’s behavior but that it was up to them to respond. He was followed by the Paris police chief, who called Mr. Benalla’s behavior “reprehensible.”
On the trip, Mr. Macron kept up with his bland “How are you doing?” as he greeted well-wishers, kissed babies and was fussed over by grandmothers, even as the reporters kept up their questioning.
“What’s the difference between Benalla and the ‘Black Blocs?’ ” a journalist shouted, referring to the anarchist protesters who stir up trouble at French street demonstrations. Mr. Macron ignored the question.
The video of Mr. Benalla’s thrashing of the protester last May Day has shocked France — almost as much as subsequent videos showing him close by Mr. Macron’s side on numerous outings. The president’s “Mr. Security” accompanied him on biking trips, went skiing with him and was with him at tennis matches.
In the video, Mr. Benalla can be seen, in unauthorized police gear, violently dragging a protester on the ground even as the prostrate man pleads with him. Mr. Benalla grabs him by the neck then hits him several times for no apparent reason. Another video revealed by the newspaper Le Monde, which broke the story, shows him wrestling a young female protester.
A favored member of Mr. Macron’s inner circle, the bearded and burly Mr. Benalla had a presidential apartment on the fashionable Quai Branly in Paris, a chauffeured car and a special legislative floor pass granted to few. It was all part of “an unwholesome old-boy network,” the Paris police chief, Michel Delpuech, told Parliament on Monday.
Mr. Benalla and a colleague were charged with assault on Sunday. He has been fired from his job at the Élysée, the presidential palace, where he had an office. But especially given that Mr. Macron and his associates were aware of Mr. Benalla’s violent behavior immediately, the questions have not gone away:
Why was Mr. Benalla allowed to keep his position and given a mere 15-day suspension? Why was he riding in the bus with the victorious French national soccer team as recently as a week ago? Why weren’t judicial authorities immediately informed of his violent acts? Why did the Macron government shield Mr. Benalla, until Le Monde’s scoop last week made it impossible for officials to do so?
To the critics of the president, the Benalla affair — and his silence about it — says much about Mr. Macron’s distant style, which had never been put to the test of an election until he unexpectedly gained the presidency last year.
“He’s surrounded by people who sing his praises day and night, and he’s never been confronted with the essence of what it is to manage power,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the opposition to Mr. Macron in Parliament and head of the left-wing La France Insoumise party, or France Unbowed, in a telephone interview on Monday.
“Why was he incapable of understanding this situation?” Mr. Mélenchon asked. “His only method is the crossing of the Bridge at Arcole,” he said, referring to a famous bold Napoleonic victory. “So he doesn’t understand the reality of it.”
“Essentially his style is monarchic, that of an absolute president,” Mr. Mélenchon added. “He’s a man who said he gained power by force and surprise, and he’s surrounded by people who have no experience of the state, who think of the state as a sort of corporation, a business.”
Mr. Macron’s distance from his constituents — highlighted by a string of recent missteps, including the public upbraiding of a bewildered teenager and the ordering up of a costly dinner service for the Élysée — was on display during his trip last week. He engaged with the crowds easily enough, smiling and shaking hands.
But he couldn’t resist lecturing a middle-aged woman in the crowded receiving line in the provincial capital, Périgueux. She was distraught over her shaky financial situation. For 10 minutes the woman engaged stubbornly with the president, pleading for help, as hundreds watched.
“Listen to me well, Mr. Macron,” she said. “I work but I no longer have the means to live. My life was better before. I work and I have a diploma. I work every day. I have children, and I can’t even pay for their vacations. We’re just not making it.”
“You say you are lightening up taxes on the one hand, but on the other you are loading us up,” she added. “And we are just not making it.”
Mr. Macron responded fluently but with abstractions and little empathy, describing a series of government programs and plans he insisted confidently were going to make life better.
“No, no,” the president said. “First of all what you are saying isn’t strictly speaking true. And then, when you pay your phone bill and your gas bill, it’s not the state that’s setting the rates. You can blame the state for everything, this or that is going up, but, it’s not all the state’s fault.”
“Yes, but I can’t change the tires on my car,” the woman responded. “I can’t afford the inspection. I can’t even maintain my car. We’re really in the hole. This is not the life I dreamed of.”
Later, Mr. Macron made a speech in this rural village, promising more attention from the state, a “reinvention” of state services. The crowd listened politely but the applause was light.
“That was absolutely nothing, nothing, it’s the usual promises,” said Thierry Krevisan, a salesman who had stood for hours in the hot sun waiting for the president to show up. “It’s always the same speech.”
Orignially published in NYT.