Paris |It was the week that Emmanuel Macron, the slick young French president who once said that he hoped to rule above the political fray like the Roman god Jupiter, was brutally reminded that he is, after all, a mere mortal.
His top aides were grilled on live television and the opposition shut down parliament. And to cap it all he was forced to issue a bizarre denial that he was having a homosexual affair with the bodyguard who sparked a political scandal after being filmed beating up May Day protesters.
Seeking to dispel rumours on the internet, Macron joked: “Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes . . . Alexandre Benalla is not my lover.” His MPs laughed but the joke did not go down well with the public. His popularity ratings, already down, fell to a record low.
It was all so different just two weeks ago. He had established himself as a leader who could sweep all before him, pushing through reforms his predecessors had promised but never delivered.
Labour law, pensions, the debt-ridden state railways: every sector yielded to the 40-year-old whose election victory upended French politics, relegating the parties that had ruled for decades to the back benches. Mr Macron, fluent in English, had strutted the international stage, making clear his ambition to be known as a global statesman who shaped world events. But then one day last week Le Monde newspaper published a series of videos – and the all-conquering hero’s seemingly inexorable rise came to an abrupt halt.
France was transfixed by the images of Mr Benalla dressed in police riot gear manhandling one young protester and punching and kicking another during a demonstration in Paris.
Late last week another video emerged allegedly showing Mr Benalla engaged in further acts of brutality during the protests. Mr Benalla is not a police officer and he had no business adopting the role of one.
Until his suspension from duty he was officially “deputy to the president’s chief of staff” and had been on the security team since Mr Macron launched the political movement – En Marche! – that would sweep him into the corridors of the Elysée.
The pair were almost inseparable. Mr Benalla accompanied the president when he skied in the Pyrenees and cycled with him along the beachfronts near his holiday home in Le Touquet. Mr Benalla enjoyed perks including a generous salary and a grace-and-favour apartment near the Eiffel Tower.
The May Day videos stopped all that – and arguably Mr Macron’s place in the pantheon of politicians who could never make a wrong move. Just over a week ago, on what should have been his wedding day, Mr Benalla was taken into custody.
Opposition parties seized on the affair, forcing parliament to halt a debate on a bill designed to reduce the number of MPs by a third, another sign in their eyes that Mr Macron wanted to concentrate more power in his own hands. They launched a motion of no-confidence and set up two parliamentary commissions of inquiry.
Alexis Kohler, the president’s chief of staff, acknowledged that the Elysée’s initial decision to punish Mr Benalla with a two-week suspension might “appear insufficient”, but said that at the time it had seemed “proportionate.” It was only after Le Monde broke the story that the bodyguard was sacked and charged with assault and impersonating a police officer.
Mr Macron’s response to the media and opposition frenzy was typically haughty. When he did finally deign to respond, he said his aide had made a “huge, serious error”, but added defiantly: “If they are looking for the person responsible, it’s me and me alone. Let them come and get me.”
He dismissed the affair as a “storm in a teacup” and launched a Trump-like attack on the media for talking “rubbish”, saying that it “no longer seeks the truth”.
But then came that curious denial that he was not Mr Benalla’s lover. It was not the first time Mr Macron, 40, who is married to his former teacher, a woman 20 years his senior, has had to protest that he is not homosexual.
During last year’s presidential campaign he laughed off rumours that he once had a gay affair.
But his jokes and his playing-down of the scandal have not gone down well. Polls show that 80 per cent of his French citizens are “shocked” at the goings-on, and 66 per cent want him to address the nation to explain himself.
Mr Macron, whose model Jupiter was also the god of sky and of thunder, left the political turmoil behind him on Thursday when he flew out on working visits to Spain and Portugal.
But the crack and rumble of the thunder of “Benallagate” awaited him when he returned to Paris at the weekend.