French Politics and the Benalla Scandal

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Even though I haven’t been in the United States, I’ve kept up with the political news, and it seems like there’s no end to the controversies sometimes. Between the Helsinki summit, the Michael Cohen tapes, and the ongoing Mueller probe, there are times where I’m glad to be away from Washington and all its scandals. When I first decided to take a course on international relations, I didn’t expect much excitement. After all, European politics have always been more stable than their American counterparts, and France was no exception. Of course, there’s always a struggle between labor unions and labor reform, and the French bureaucracy can be hopelessly complicated, but I didn’t expect any kind of breaking news.

When I first saw the words “L’affair Benalla” in my daily morning brief, I didn’t think much of it. A quick skim through the article quickly changed my mind. Alexandre Benalla, Macron’s (former) security chief, had been caught up in a scandal that quickly enveloped the Elysee Palace, and I watched as what was a small story grow into a major political scandal for Macron. It was reported that Benalla had attacked several protesters during the annual May Day protests, and that Macron and the Interior Minister knew about the event but took no disciplinary action. On the day that Benalla was finally fired, I remember thinking to myself: That’s the end of the scandal, then. How wrong I was.

As more and more evidence came to light, the public outrage began to strengthen. When our tour group visited the French Senate, they were discussing the Benalla affair, and for someone as interested in European politics as me, that session was an incredible opportunity to witness first-hand how French politicians would react to a scandal. To my surprise, the Senate passed a unanimous motion to begin a judicial inquest–even senators from Macron’s own party voted to support it, and that’s when I realized how serious the scandal had become.

The Luxembourg Palace, home of the French Senate.

Watching this scandal play out while I was in France was incredible for me, since it gave me a perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have. When I read about the political happenings in Washington D.C., it feels too personal and too immediate, but when I’m able to observe how another country deals with its political scandals with no vested interest, I’m able to view it as a dispassionate third-party. I supported Macron’s election campaign, and I’ve been following his attempts to reform the European Union, but this is really the first time I’ve been able to learn more about what France cares about politically, and seeing how different networks and political parties are representing this scandal has been fascinating.