February 11, 2019 / 10:31 PM / 6 months ago

French presidential aide quits as Benalla scandal deepens

PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron’s special advisor Ismael Emelien joined a wave of departures from the Elysee as the French leader struggles to rebuild his popularity, sapped by “yellow vest” protests and a scandal surrounding his former security chief.

Emelien, one of Macron’s most loyal aides, said on Monday he would leave in late March or early April, while affirming that his departure was unrelated to the so-called Benalla affair.

Alexandre Benalla, the former security advisor, was eventually sacked after footage emerged of him beating demonstrators last May, but the affair left lingering suspicions of an attempted cover-up.

The outcry intensified after it emerged that Benalla had continued to travel on diplomatic passports after he was fired. In a recording taped after his sacking and published last month, Benalla was also heard discussing the support he continued to enjoy from administration figures, including Emelien.

Emelien’s exit follows those of Macron’s communications advisors Sylvain Fort and Barbara Frugier, and political strategist Stephane Sejourne.

Benalla is under renewed scrutiny over detailed press reports that he brokered security contracts worth 2.2 million euros ($2.5 million) with two Russian oligarchs close to President Putin, before and after he left the Elysee, and may have misled a Senate committee about his role.

French prosecutors said on Friday they had opened a corruption probe of one of the contracts, concluded with Russian tycoon Iskander Makhmudov.

Benalla did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters. Elysee officials also declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Reporting by Julie Carriat and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Laurence Frost; Editing by Dan Grebler

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