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PARIS – France's interior minister insisted Monday that it wasn't his job to inform judicial officials that a senior security aide who has often been seen during outings with President Emmanuel Macron beat up a May Day protester.
Gerard Collomb, who was told about the incident the day after the protests, was testifying before a parliamentary commission hastily set up to find out why it took two-and-a-half months to open a judicial probe into the actions of an aide to Macron.
Though the Elysee Palace knew about what Alexandre Benalla had done while embedded with police as an observer, the aide was able to keep his job. The Elysee said last week it was firing Benalla but that development only came about after the Le Monde newspaper identified the aide in a video of the incident published.
The Elysee's failure to act immediately has raised a series of questions about the actions of those close to Macron, who has yet to comment. It's turning into one of the biggest political crises to hit Macron since he was elected president in May, 2017.
French authorities are acting swiftly now. On Sunday, Benalla and four others including three ranking police officers, were handed preliminary charges regarding their actions during the events on May Day, which turned particularly violent with numerous shops and some cars damaged by ultra-left gangs.
Much of Monday's hearing centered on the chain of command. Collomb, who is in charge of France's security forces, and the Paris police chief, said Benalla was not under their supervision.
"I will remind you ... that on May 2, I made sure that the president's office as well as the police prefecture had been informed about Mr. Benalla's doings," Collomb said.
"And so I thought, as the rule is in cases of misconduct, that adequate measures had been taken .... It was up to them to sanction it. And eventually to inform judicial authorities."
Laying out the sequence of events, Collomb said his top aide informed him on May 2 of a video showing Benalla beating up a protester and that both the president's office and police chief had been informed.
The minister said he was advised of the sanctions later that day. Benalla's subsequent two-week suspension and his re-assigning to a desk job have been roundly viewed as inadequate.
Like Collomb, Paris Police Chief Michel Delpuech told the committee that he failed to involve judicial officials because he thought the matter had been settled by the relevant authority.
"I considered it falls to the initiative of officials in the hierarchy," he said.
The police chief denounced what he called "unhealthy cronyism" to explain Benalla's apparent sway within France's security apparatus.
Benalla, he said, was a "known quantity" although he conceded he did not personally know him.
However, both the interior minister and the police chief said that Benalla was among some 40 people present in the command room on the night of May 1, watching video screens of the police cleanup operation of the protests.