Bodyguard scandal exposes limits of Macron's Jupiterian style

PARIS (Reuters) - The bodyguard scandal rocking France in the heat of summer is turning into a political crisis for President Emmanuel Macron, aggravated by his refusal to explain himself and the limitations of his highly personalized governing style.

FILE PHOTO: Emmanuel Macron (R), head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, flanked by Alexandre Benalla (L), head of security, attends a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

Macron’s top security official was caught on camera roughing up a protester on May Day while posing as a police officer - something that could have been brushed off as a brief embarrassment had he been cut loose quickly and publicly, analysts said.

But the French leader has dug a bigger hole for himself by initially dealing with the aide in the secrecy of the Elysee palace and sticking to his so-called “Jupiterian” communication strategy - making only rare pronouncements from on high, like the Roman god of gods.

“I didn’t come here to see you,” Macron characteristically snapped back at reporters pressing him with questions about the scandal last week while he was on a visit to a southwestern French village.

Although the security chief, Alexandre Benalla, was fired on Friday, Macron has not talked to the media since last week.

“He’s on Mount Olympus and will come down whenever he sees fit. But this is not a monarchy, we’re in a democracy where a president must be accountable to the French,” Alexis Levrier, a media historian at Reims university, told Reuters.

Macron’s top-down, monarchical style of leadership, which he adopted in order to restore dignity to the presidency after his predecessor Francois Hollande’s much-mocked “Mr Normal” style, is increasingly making him seem out of touch, he said.

The French like their leaders to embody grandeur and dignity, but they are also quick to make heads roll if they feel authority has turned into unaccountability, Levrier said.

“We’re a regicidal people, and that can turn into violent rebellions,” he said. “What is certain is that we’re at a turning point in his mandate and that will leave irreversible stains on the president’s image.”

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The scandal pricked the euphoric bubble that followed France’s World Cup victory when Le Monde newspaper last Wednesday identified Benalla on a video beating a protester.

What has become known as the “Benalla affair” has received wall-to-wall media coverage ever since, reinvigorated opposition leaders who hastily set up unusual parliamentary inquiries, and forced the government to postpone debates on Macron’s constitutional reforms.

Even some of Macron’s lawmakers expressed disquiet. The centrist president had swept to power on a promise to govern differently after his conservative rival Francois Fillon’s election bid was derailed by scandal.

“We campaigned on a platform to make politics cleaner ... so of course it’s a bit unsettling,” Paul Molac, an MP who backs Macron, told France Bleu radio.

Coming as Macron’s exhausted advisers and ministers prepared to take a summer break after more than a year of almost non-stop efforts to pass wide-ranging reforms, the scandal highlighted the danger of relying on a small band of ultraloyalists who owe everything to the president.

After the initial shock, Macron’s allies have started to hit back, accusing opposition leaders of blowing out of proportion a minor incident that is a far cry from past scandals that have hit their own parties over the past decades.

But 8 out of 10 French people say they are shocked by the Benalla affair, according to a poll by the Elabe institute published on Tuesday, and three-quarters of them think Macron should explain himself publicly.

The extent of the damage to Macron’s popularity, which was already below 40 percent after a series of pro-business economic reforms earned him the tag “president of the rich”, is only starting to become clear.

According to an IPSOS poll released on Tuesday, Macron’s popularity has fallen to 32 percent, down four points since June and his lowest level since September 2017.

Worryingly for the 40-year old president, the impact is most pronounced among his core voters in the professional middle classes, IPSOS’s Laurence Boisson said in Le Point magazine.

“It’s the first time his core supporters are abandoning him,” she said.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by John Irish and Giles Elgood