For a journalist covering France, it is - as my guitar-playing neighbour Jean-Louis put it between his trio New Deal's superb sets at the Gecko bar - 'un cadeau'. President Emmanuel Macron's trusted security chief is caught administering summary justice to a couple of protestors at the May day demo in Paris. The Elysee, in turn, is caught - or at least suspected of being caught - in flagrant cover-up mode.
What the unfortunate pair had done to warrant Alexandre Benalla's heavy-handed treatment is unclear; a photographer who witnessed the events from his nearby flat said they seemed peaceful enough, Benalla may feel they were a threat to civilisation as we know it. We'll see (update: new footage shows them acting like voyous; their lawyer insists they were just a couple out for a drink and threw whatever came to hand when they felt the police were attacking them).
As usual, my thanks to the editor of The National for allowing me to reproduce my work here ...
Emmanuel Macron faces the gravest crisis of his 14-month French presidency after a security chief was caught on film mistreating a demonstrator and assaulting another in an incident that led to suspicions of a cover-up by the Elysee Palace.
Mr Macron’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, will be questioned in parliament on Monday and Tuesday. He’ll be quizzed on an affair that is causing acute embarrassment to an administration that took office with promises to clean up French politics after decades of corruption scandals.
Alexandre Benalla was suspended for two weeks for his actions during the May 1 protest in Paris. But he was allowed to return to duties that included responsibility for security at the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees and the return of the triumphant French football team from the World Cup.
Benalla, 26, was initially suspended without pay but on Friday, Macron fired his former security aide, who was taken into custody suspected of unlawfully receiving police surveillance footage in a bid to clear his name.
Amid growing opposition anger, the Elysee announced on Friday that he would be dismissed, not for mistreating protestors but for improperly obtaining official documents. These are understood to be police video evidence obtained in an attempt to justify his actions.
Along with three senior police officers and another presidential security official, Mr Benalla was placed under arrest and forced to cancel plans to marry at the weekend. Three separate formal inquiries have been launched. A formal judicial investigation, which could lead to criminal charges, was opened on Sunday and all five are now mise en examen, the nearest French equivalent to being charged though the outcome of the "examen" part is not necessarily a prosecution.
Mr Benalla was filmed after joining officers dealing with incidents on the fringes of the May 1 demonstration. Wearing a helmet with police insignia and surrounded by riot police, he is seen dragging a young woman roughly along the street and then striking a young man.
The film was circulated by another protestor but it was not until last week that Le Monde newspaper identified Mr Macron’s security man as the alleged aggressor.
Mr Benalla, 26, has a colourful past closely connected to politics. He previously worked as a bodyguard for the former socialist president Francois Hollande as well as other senior politicians. One of them, former minister Arnaud Montebourg, told Le Monde that he sacked Mr Benalla after he caused a road accident and then wanted to “flee the scene”. Mr Benalla contests the politician's account.
Photographs reproduced in recent days show how close he was to Mr Macron as the president’s security chief attached to the office of his chief of staff.
He enjoyed the highest level of access to parliament and helped to protect the president during his 2017 election campaign and subsequently during holidays and private visits with his wife, Brigitte.
A rugby enthusiast of Moroccan family origins, he adopted Alexandre as a more “French” first name according to French reports. His muscular approach to protection work has reportedly earned him the nickname “Rambo”.
A Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, said Mr Benalla was actively preparing a defence, claiming he acted lawfully by helping police deal with outbreaks of violence.
Mr Collomb, as interior minister, was made aware of the Mayday incidents the next day. Members of parliament and senators will want to know why he did no more than pass the matter to Mr Macron’s chief of staff. He said nothing publicly until Thursday, the day after details of Mr Benalla’s alleged misconduct appeared.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, said he believed Mr Collomb and others would have to resign.
Eric Ciotti, from the centre-right Les Republicains, said: “At the very top, everything was done to keep the facts under wraps. The interior minister, the police prefecture and the Elysee have tried to hide them [the facts]. If Le Monde had not revealed the affair, it would have remained an Elysee drawing room secret.”
The crisis follows a series of disclosures undermining Mr Macron’s desire to be seen as a breath of fresh air in the often murky world of French politics.
He has shown a bold taste for change, defying months of strikes by rail workers opposed to reforms. A new law to tighten ethics in public office was passed soon after he took power. But he has been unable to shrug off jibes that he is a “president for the rich”.
Opponents seized on the order of a new 1,200-piece dinner service for the Elysee (his office rejects claims it will cost over €500,000), his use of the presidential jet for a journey of just 110km and plans for a swimming pool at a shore-side presidential holiday retreat on the Mediterranean coast. When a student called out to him as Manu, the diminutive form of his first name, he sternly told him he should be addressed as “Monsieur le president or monsieur”.
There has been no World Cup “bounce” in the opinion polls. The most recent, conducted after the 4-2 win over Croatia in the final, showed his disapproval rating had risen by six points to 59 per cent.