How does the Benalla case affect French Maghrebis?

Macron has been firm in his condemnation of Benalla, but blamed the media for turning the case into a political firestorm.
Tuesday 31/07/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (R), flanked by Alexandre Benalla (L), head of security, attends a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017. (Reuters)
French President Emmanuel Macron (R), flanked by Alexandre Benalla (L), head of security, attends a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017. (Reuters)

LONDON - The political fallout surrounding French President Emmanuel Macron’s former security aide Alexandre Benalla is increasing, with few saying the scandal has yet reached its peak. How is it affecting France’s Maghreb community, from which Benalla hails?

Benalla was fired and faces criminal charges, including assault, interfering in police work and impersonating a police officer, after footage emerged purportedly showing him assaulting demonstrators while he was supposed to be “observing” a detachment of riot officers at a May Day protest.

The French-born bodyguard, who is of Moroccan descent, was initially placed on a 15-day leave of absence and given a technical demotion. After video apparently of Benalla manhandling two protesters was published by France’s Le Monde newspaper, he was formally dismissed.

French authorities have raided his office as part of an investigation into the incident. There have been accusations of a cover-up after it emerged that Benalla used his position to gain access to the video from police.

Macron’s government has come under increasing pressure over the incident. Lawmakers questioned French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb about the issue, trying to find out who knew what and when. France’s opposition called for a vote of no confidence in the government, citing the incident and the government’s lack of action.

"What happened on May 1 is terrible, serious, and for me it was a disappointment and a betrayal," Macron told lawmakers.

While Macron has been firm in his public condemnation of Benalla, at least after the incident became public, he also blamed the media for turning the Benalla case into a political firestorm.

“We have a media that does not seek the truth… I see a media power that wants to be a judicial power,” he said at a closed-door reception.

Away from the potentially serious political ramifications of the Benalla case, it has significant social ones, with many in France’s right wing trying to make the most of Benalla’s ethnic background.

France’s Le Figaro newspaper, which leans to the right, speculated that Benalla could have changed his name and raised questions about his previous security experience, much of which took place in Morocco.

There are also questions about Benalla’s name, with many in France’s far right claiming that his real name is Lahcene Benhalia, which the Elysee Palace officially denied.

“There is no Alexandre Benalla. He is Lahcene Benhalia,” tweeted Christian Lechevalier, a councillor for the far-right National Rally, formerly the National Front. “We see all too well the lies being told to the press by Macron.”

Other right-wing and far-right blogs and social media accounts went further, claiming that Benalla -- or Benhalia as they insist on naming him -- has ties to shadowy Muslim associations in Paris and beyond. It is unclear whether Benalla is a Muslim.

Right-wing YouTuber “Aldo Sterone,” a former supporter of the National Rally constructed a fanciful conspiracy theory suggesting that Benalla was a secret agent working for Morocco’s external intelligence agency. His video had more than 100,000 views at the time of publication.

Sterone sought to link Benalla to outstanding French politicians of Moroccan descent such as Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, MEP Rachida Dati, former Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri and former Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay “and many others,” citing a major foreign conspiracy against France.

While few in the French mainstream take such conspiracy theories seriously, that they are so rife on the political fringes and social media is indicative of the suspicion felt towards France’s Maghrebis.

At a time when many have called on the French to celebrate its multiculturalism after winning the FIFA World Cup with a largely multicultural squad, the fact that many users on social media insist on labelling Benalla as “the Moroccan” indicates that there is a long way to go.