July 31, 2018 / 5:05 PM / 3 months ago

Macron's government wins no-confidence vote over bodyguard scandal

PARIS (Reuters) - The French government on Tuesday firmly defeated two no-confidence motions put forward by opposition lawmakers over its handling of a scandal involving President Emmanuel Macron’s bodyguard, confirming his solid majority.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe delivers a speech before no-confidence votes by opposition parties against the French government as part of the political crisis surrounding French presidential aide Alexandre Benalla, at the National Assembly in Paris, France, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Although the two motions had virtually no chance of succeeding, the votes capped a tumultuous two weeks in French politics after a video showing the bodyguard beating protesters triggered the most serious crisis of Macron’s tenure.

The motion backed by the conservative opposition party won 143 votes, falling short of the 289 necessary to topple the government, while the one put forward by an alliance of left-wing parties only gathered 74 votes.

Macron’s Republic On The Move party controls an outright majority in the lower house National Assembly and not a single of the president’s MPs broke ranks on Tuesday.

Despite the parliamentary victories, what has become known as the “Benalla affair”, after bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, has left an impact on Macron’s presidency, denting his popularity and throwing parts of his agenda off schedule.

The 40-year-old president was criticised for firing the aide only after the video showing him assaulting a May Day protester while wearing police gear was revealed by the press, undermining his claim of building an “exemplary Republic”.

As well as forcing his government to postpone a constitutional reform, the affair has pushed Macron down in the polls, with his popularity now at barely 36 percent, according to one recent survey. It has also emboldened a fragmented opposition, which had been floundering since Macron’s landslide victory last year.

The scandal has also raised questions about Macron’s highly centralised governing style and the wide powers conferred on the president under France’s Fifth Republic.

“This scandal reveals above all the abuses of a hyper-presidential regime,” veteran Communist lawmaker Andre Chassaigne told MPs before the no-confidence vote.

“This is not just a summer affair, it shows the ultra concentration of powers by an elected monarch which undermines the very principle of separation of powers,” he said.

The former investment banker has dismissed the case as a “storm in a teacup”.

Although Macron will soon head off to the south of France for a summer break where he will host British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, the scandal will continue to make waves when lawmakers return in September.

The senate, France’s upper house of parliament, has set up an enquiry which may question the 26-year old bodyguard after Benalla said in an interview he was open to it, despite the separate judicial investigation opened by prosecutors.

On Tuesday, the head of Macron’s party, Christophe Castaner, told the enquiry he had fired Vincent Crase, the second man who was seen roughing up protesters with Benalla on the video revealed by Le Monde newspaper.

Crase, who held a security position in the president’s party, was also placed under formal investigation by prosecutors.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Luke Baker and Angus MacSwan

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