The W-word has been dropped. The first to mention it was France's far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in an interview with Le Monde. He was quickly followed by his far-right counterpart Marine Le Pen. And soon enough, journalists around the world, from Germany to Latin America by way of Portugal and others, were joining in: Could this really be Emmanuel Macron's Watergate?
The French President is currently embroiled in what the Parisian press corps has dubbed the "Benalla affair." It all began with video footage showing a man in National Police gear beating a peaceful protester on the fringes of the May Day demonstration in Paris. Last week, Le Monde revealed that the man shown on the video was in fact not a police officer, but Alexandre Benalla — President Emmanuel Macron's longtime bodyguard and deputy chief of staff. And the Élysée presidential palace is now accused of attempting to cover up the incident: Instead of informing the public prosecutor, as the legislation requires, the president's team, merely gave Benalla a two-week suspension, before re-assigning him to his usual tasks. He was, thus, still accompanying Macron at the Bastille Day parade and was even at the front of the French soccer team's bus for their Paris victory parade last week.
This was supposed to have disappeared from the Elysée in the shiny Macron era.
Observers in France and elsewhere are scratching their heads as to how such a minor (though serious) event could escalate to the point of becoming an "affaire d"état", the gravest crisis of the Macron presidency so far. There are several factors at play. First, there's certainly what the BBC's Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield describes as "incompetence, poor judgment of character, misuse of authority and hopeless communication," all of which, he says "were supposed to have disappeared from the Elysée in the shiny Macron era."
A second factor is to be found in what an extensive media focus on this scandal has revealed — namely, suspicions of the existence of a private militia under the president's authority, evidence of a preferential treatment and of double standards, and the long list of all the advantages and privileges Benalla had access to both before and, more disturbingly, after the May Day incident. The French daily Ouest-France reported that Benalla had access to a private car equipped with police tech with chauffeur, to a "generous' monthly salary of 10,000 euros and that he was given, just two weeks ago, a luxury state apartment in an upmarket Paris district. Magazine L'Express meanwhile revealed that he was given 180,000 euros in taxpayers' money for renovation works in that apartment. And the list goes on ...
Finally, there is, undoubtedly, another factor at play in this whole scandal, not directly linked to the facts of the case: a rare chance for political gain for opponents from both sides of the spectrum, who have struggled to find their way since Macron cruised to victory a year-and-a-half ago.
In the end, you always pay.
Writing in Le Monde, columnist Françoise Fressoz says the opposition's success in using the scandal to delay a controversial parliamentary debate on constitutional reform is "their first victory" since the beginning of Macron's presidency. "In the end, you always pay," she writes. "They're taking revenge for his insolent audacity of believing that nothing would resist him, that he could thumb his nose at the old world, that he was strong enough to do and reform as he pleases (on labor laws, rail, unemployment benefits, pensions, health, etc.) while ignoring their criticism or even their advice."
Is the "Benalla affair" Macron's Watergate? Perhaps not. But then again, the Watergate scandal itself took on a life of its own — and eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon — long after the initial revelations. What we can be sure of is that both the media and investigators will continue to dig on the Benalla affair. With plenty of enemies ready to exploit whatever is found, Macron's fate may ultimately lie with his friends.