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Pressure on Macron as disgraced aide defends 'lending police a hand'
[PARIS] French President Emmanuel Macron was under mounting pressure on Monday over a scandal sparked by his former top security aide, who has insisted he was trying to help police when he was filmed manhandling demonstrators at a violent Paris protest.
France's interior minister and the Paris police chief both defended their handling of the burgeoning scandal, telling a parliamentary commission Monday it was up to Mr Macron's office to respond after videos emerged of Alexandre Benalla hitting a protester.
Dubbed "Benallagate", the affair has prompted opposition claims of an attempted cover-up and paralysed parliamentary debate.
Benalla, 26, was charged on Sunday with assault and impersonating a police officer over the videos of him wrestling with two protesters on May 1 while wearing a riot officer's helmet and police armband.
It is unclear how Benalla obtained the equipment, since he was only supposed to be attending the protest as an observer.
On Monday Benalla said the young man and woman he was filmed scuffling with were "particularly virulent individuals" whom he had been trying to "bring under control" while "lending a hand" to police.
"This personal initiative... is obviously being used to tarnish the president in circumstances that defy comprehension," his lawyers said in a statement.
Benalla insisted that his action was "vigorous but without violence and caused no injury".
But the director of public order, Alain Gibelin, told lawmakers that Benalla didn't have "any authorisation" from Paris police headquarters to be at the demonstration as an observer.
'MACRON KNOWS EVERYTHING'
Speaking before a parliamentary commission, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Paris police chief Michel Delpuech both said they learned of a video of Benalla circulating on social media on May 2, the day after the protest.
Asked why he did not report the incident to prosecutors, Mr Delpuech said he considered it was up to Macron's office to respond.
Mr Collomb also said it was up to Benalla's superiors in Mr Macron's office either to inform prosecutors or impose any punishment.
Benalla was suspended for two weeks without pay in May, but it was not clear why prosecutors were not informed of the video and alleged violence.
The government on Monday tried to distance Macron from the growing scandal, with government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux saying that Benalla was not "in charge of the security of the President of the Republic".
"The people who ensure the security of the President of the Republic is the police, the gendarmerie," he said.
Meanwhile Gibelin also revealed under questioning from far-right leader Marine Le Pen that Benalla attended meetings between his services and the Elysee in May during the period when Benalla was suspended from his job.
Lawmakers in both houses of parliament are investigating the affair, with Macron's office director Patrick Strzoda due to appear at the Senate on Tuesday afternoon and his chief of staff Alexis Kohler on Thursday.
Political opponents have also called on the president himself to face a grilling.
His former Socialist presidential rival Benoit Hamon said in a video on Twitter that Mr Macron must appear before lawmakers because "all this revolves around him".
"Macron knows everything. He must be questioned," far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon added in a tweet.
"This is a political tribunal," Mr Griveaux told LCI channel of the parliamentary hearings.
Mr Macron has yet to speak publicly on the most damaging scandal since he was elected last year on a promise to restore integrity in government.
He has called off a scheduled appearance on Wednesday at the Tour de France cycling race, though aides insist the cancellation was unrelated to the Benalla case.
Benalla was Mr Macron's closest bodyguard during his campaign, before transferring to the president's security detail in May 2017.
Benalla was fired on Friday after newspaper Le Monde published a smartphone video showing him hitting a man at the protest.
The newspaper later posted another video showing Benalla violently pushing a young woman.
Both protesters have come forward and plan to testify, according to a source close to the inquiry.
Along with Benalla, Vincent Crase, a security agent employed by Mr Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party who was also at the scene, has been charged with assault.
The government has been forced to suspend debate on a constitutional reform bill after a revolt by lawmakers, and on Monday parliament said the debate would be postponed until September at the earliest.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that Benalla had been living free in a luxurious mansion reserved for presidential staff, and had been given a car and driver.
But an Elysee spokeswoman late Monday said Benalla had never lived at the site at Alma in Paris, and denied media reports that an apartment was to be renovated for him.
The president's office confirmed that "a request for lodging had been accepted" this year, but Benalla "never occupied" it.