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France

Prosecutors launch probe into May Day protester violence against police

media May Day protesters in clouds of tear gas in Paris on May 1, 2018. REUTERS / Philippe Wojazer

As the “Benallagate” scandal continues to roil French politics, the Paris prosecutors’ office has opened a preliminary investigation into May Day protesters for allegedly attacking law enforcement.

The tables may have turned for the two young protesters shown on video being roughed up by former top presidential aide Alexandre Benalla during May Day protests in Paris. While many have seen them as victims of assault on the part of Benalla, now city prosecutors have launched a probe into whether protesters that day were violent towards police.

The investigation, announced Thursday, does not focus solely on the two protesters in the video, but rather “all individuals suspected to have participated” in acts of violence against police in the Place Contrescarpe on May Day, according to the capital’s prosecutors’ office.

But Paris Prosecutor François Molins did have the two protesters in mind when he wrote to city police on Wednesday asking why they “had not been charged for their actions towards police”.

Thirty-one people at the square were arrested that day, AFP reports, including the couple in the video. However, they were released from police custody that same night.

The probe announcement came the same day French daily Le Monde – the paper that broke the story last week -- published an interview with Benalla in which he described as “hysterical” the two protesters he wrestled to the ground.

In the interview, Benalla claimed that the two “agitated” demonstrators had thrown bottles at police, and hit them in doing so. He also claimed one of them threw a restaurant chair.

According to media reports, the protesters’ lawyer said the couple didn’t initially plan on going to the protest, but rather went out “for a drink” near the Place Contrescarpe. When officers arrived there, and “confusion” took over the square, the couple began throwing projectiles at police, including “an object similar to a water carafe,” according to their lawyer.

The two demonstrators didn’t initially bring charges against police. However, they are now seeking to be recognised as victims of “police violence,” according to AFP.

Benalla has been charged with assault and impersonation of a police officer, as he was wearing a police helmet and armband at the protest.

The 26-year-old said he'd made "a mistake" but stopped short of a public apology. "If I wasn't a presidential aide, I would do it again," he told Le Monde.

Earlier in the week, after days of silence on the issue, Macron accepted responsibility of the matter. "I, and I alone, am responsible," he told members of his Republic on the Move (LREM) party on Tuesday in Paris. 

His statement was applauded by his party, but did not succeed in appeasing the opposition, which has organised dozens of parliamentary hearings and accused the Elysee of covering up the affair. The presidential palace knew of the incident soon after it took place, but didn't report it to police.

His statement also did little to boost his approval ratings. An Ipsos poll on Tuesday found that 60 percent of French people currently disapprove of Macron, a record for his presidency.

Benalla was initially given a two-week suspension, but was ultimately fired after the video was published by Le Monde.

What's been dubbed "Benallagate" is the worst scandal to hit Macron's presidency.

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