Among the traditional duties that fall to French ministers is the denial that the government is running a clandestine paramilitary force. Here is Roger Frey addressing l’Assemblée Nationale in 1966 after he was implicated (if only through dereliction) in the disappearance of the Moroccan politician Ben Barka: “I solemnly swear, once and for all, that there is not a parallel police force in France. These odious calumnies must cease, these tales of barbouzes . . . ”
Ah! The barbouzes. The original barbouzes were the mercenaries, including former French employees of the Gestapo, sent with Charles de Gaulle’s connivance into Algiers and Oran in the winter of 1961-62 to extinguish the OAS (whose members included former résistants). They swiftly failed and crept back to the mainland licking their wounds. Frey himself dissolved them in February 1962. They had never existed.
Over the past several months there has been talk of neo-barbouzes lurking in the Elysée’s corridors. The star exhibit is Emmanuel Macron’s buddy and sometime bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, né Maroine Benalla: under the law of 25.10.1972 his mother had every right to frenchify his name. Online footsoldiers of the Rassemblement National (formerly FN) like to believe, wrongly, that his natal name was Lahcène Benahlia. This nomenclatural racism is a tiresome diversion from the many plots and freelance delinquencies to which Benalla is supposedly connected.
France hasn’t enjoyed such a festival of bodyguard conspiracies since the actor Alain Delon’s former gofer Stevan Markovic was found in a state of decomposition on a municipal dump more than half a century ago. Markovic was fingered, on flimsy evidence, as a spy for Tito and, more convincingly, as a blackmailer in possession of sexually explicit photos, claimed to be of President Pompidou’s wife Claude.
These extravagances occlude rather graver matters: how the Elysée is managed; the derogation of protocols dictating the way appointments are made; the president’s inviolability; the dangerous scent of absolutism; the separation of the man from the office; immunity or at least protection for favourites and members of the kitchen cabinet. Benalla is closer to the epicentre of power than a gangster like Markovic could ever have hoped to be: Delon may be a (former) god, but he was never president of the republic. Benalla has a boysy, flirty if somewhat rebarbative relationship with Macron, telling him when he needs a haircut; skiing and sledging with him. It was no problem to obtain a diplomatic passport — which, after his arrest for impersonating a police officer and assaulting a protest kid, he was meant to have handed in along with his firearms (he has those too). But when you connect as well as Benalla, such matters are paltry. As his latest patron, Israeli businessman and operator Philippe Hababou Solomon, says: “When you arrive in a country where you’re going to be with the rulers, the etiquette is that you’re met at the airport and all the formalities are taken care of. Visa, no visa, it makes no difference. Me, I travel on a Guinée Bissau diplomatic passport.”
Last autumn, Solomon and Benalla opened doors in Turkey and Israel for an Indonesian delegation wanting to invest in cyber-security. In November they were in Congo and Chad, displaying their versatility by obtaining contracts for the supply of military uniforms. Whatever Benalla’s real mission was, it is inescapable that Macron was there a month later. It is also the case that, according to Solomon, Benalla was warned off conducting himself as though he were “M’sieu Afrique from l’Elysée”. Solomon declined to say who issued this warning, but there is every probability that it comes from the office of Franck Paris, Macron’s adviser on African affairs. This is an important post. France has never really ceded its African interests. It still possesses a de facto colonial empire. Paris’s distant predecessor Jacques Foccart advised four presidents from de Gaulle on, masterminded several coups, and “invented” Françafrique, the model of dependent independence which Macron wishes to diminish. It is hardly surprising that the cautious Paris fears Benalla’s clumsy interference. His heavy hands are everywhere, stirring with gung-ho recklessness. Even while awaiting to hear whether he is to be charged with perjury, he has been in close contact with Macron. Though with new friends in the oligarchy, he is less beholden to the president than he was and evinces an increasing disrespect, scorning his reliance on technocrats rather than on “real people”, i.e. people like him.
To the fury of three warring acronymic security agencies (GSPR, SDLP, GIGN), Benalla told the president that the man to succeed him as personal bodyguard was one Christian Guédon. Note this name: Macron did, and duly appointed him. Ten years ago, Guédon dropped out of the GIGN, paying no heed to that corps’ motto, s’engager pour la vie. He went into private security in the Central African Republic, Mali and Gabon before setting up a sniper unit in Saudi Arabia and devising anti-piracy strategies in the Indian Ocean. His CV boasts of his skill at “discreetly opening the locks of buildings and vehicles in pursuit of justice”. The lock-picker and the president, the cowboy and the enarque, bond in the Elysée’s basement gym where they have regular boxing matches.