A video showing one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s security chiefs beating a student demonstrator is provoking a fierce public backlash.
Anger has been directed towards what is seen as a mild punishment and a possible cover-up for the incident which had been cloaked in secrecy.
The video of the May 1 event in Paris, revealed by Le Monde on Wednesday evening, shows Alexandre Benalla in a helmet with police markings, and surrounded by riot police, brutally dragging off a woman from a demonstration and then repeatedly beating a young man on the ground.
The man is heard begging him to stop.
Another man in civilian clothing pulled the young man to the ground.
Police, who had hauled the man from the crowd before Mr Benalla took over, did not intervene.
Mr Benalla then left the scene.
The second man was apparently a gendarme who Le Monde said had worked with Mr Benalla in the past.
The uproar over Mr Benalla’s punishment, a two-week suspension and a change in responsibilities, forced top French officials to address the issue on Thursday.
But Mr Macron has remained silent.
Mr Benalla, who has not commented on the matter, handled Mr Macron’s security during the presidential campaign.
France’s prime minister Edouard Philippe, responding to questions in the Senate, called the event “shocking”, but stumbled to respond to questions, notably whether all French are equal before the law.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said that the two men “obviously had no legitimate (reason) to intervene”.
He said he has demanded that a police unit which investigates suspected criminal behaviour by officers explain the rules for observers and verify whether they were respected.
Condemning the “unacceptable behaviour”, Mr Macron’s spokesman Bruno Roger-Petit said Mr Benalla was also removed from his responsibilities of organizing security for presidential trips, though he maintains his office at the Elysee Palace.
In addition, authorities launched a preliminary investigation that could lead to charges against Mr Benalla.
Despite this, Mr Benalla has been seen this month on the ground with police at several high-profile events, including the return home Monday of France’s winning World Cup team, an event attended by hundreds of thousands.
Mr Macron, in the Dordogne region to officially launch a new postage stamp, did not respond to questions about the scandal.
The upstart centrist elected last year had promised an exemplary presidency during his term to break with unending cases of corruption in French politics.
Mr Roger-Petit said the punishment dealt out to Benalla was the “most serious” ever given to a top aide at the presidential Elysee Palace and served as a “last warning before dismissal”.
Opposition politicians expressed shock, with some denouncing a climate of impunity at the top of the French political hierarchy and asking Mr Macron to personally address the issue.
The head of France’s main conservative party The Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, asked on Europe 1 radio if the government was trying to “hush the affair”.
Mr Roger-Petit stressed that Mr Benalla had requested authorisation to use his day off “to observe” security forces’ operations on May Day when marches are traditionally held. It was granted.
It was unclear why the young man under attack, who was not detained, was singled out by police before Mr Benalla intervened.
When police officials hear the word Elysee there is a particular apprehensionPhilippe Capon, police union
“An observer doesn’t act like that,” said the spokesman for the UNSA-Police union.
They are typically equipped and briefed in advance, and the framework is “completely clear”, Philippe Capon told BFM-TV.
He could not say why police did not stop Mr Benalla.
The context was “special”, he said.
“He was an observer from the Elysee. When police officials hear the word Elysee there is a particular apprehension.”