Tthe French Executive’s communication on the Benalla affair
The speech of Emmanuel Macron given in front of the representatives of La République En Marche ! party on July 24th will obviously be an important episode of the soap opera that became the Benalla affair. It marks a turning point in the French Executive’s communication on it and will contribute to make it a typical case study for university. To refer to it as an example of what to do or not to do! It also illustrates that in crisis situations, actions taken to overcome crisis often contribute to make them worse.
On July 18th 2018, the newspaper Le Monde revealed the identity of the man filmed on May 1st, Place de la Contrescarpe, beating a demonstrator on the ground, a clip already with more than 120 000 views in one and a half month. The French executive facing this situation had two strategies:
- to admit: react immediately and declare that the member of staff behavior is unacceptable and to draw consequences from it with regard to those who, having dealt with the case, have decided only a simple sanction of 15 days of suspension for such serious acts, hoping to stop the controversy before it becomes a state affair,
- to cover up: put out simply some “soft” denials and wait for it to go without being noticed or for another one to replace it.
It is clearly the second path that, initially chosen by the Élysée, was implemented under obvious conditions of improvisation and led the French executive in a dead end from which it was difficult to get out.
In the article published by the newspaper Le Monde, the President’s chief of staff confirms the facts and the imposed penalty. The next day, it is the Élysée spokesman to be on the front line to emphasize the gravity of this sanction “the most serious ever pronounced against a President’s member of staff”. And to specify that Alexandre Benalla’s attributions were modified and restricted to administrative tasks and the preparation of events inside the Élysée Palace.
A video archive race is then launched to show the presence of the person concerned near the President at the Panthéon on June 30th and in Place de la Concorde on July 14th. And also, alone this time, in the bus that brings the French national football team Les Bleus to the Champs-Elysées on July 16th. At the same time, medias begin to report examples of Alexandre Benalla’s authoritarian and violent behavior, who did not hesitate for instance, this same July 16th on the tarmac of Roissy where the heroes of Moscow were expected, to give publicly, loudly and in a rough way, instructions to the member of Gendarmerie responsible for the operations. Then, we will learn that the member of staff was given a personnel accommodation in the Élysée annex, Quai Branly on… July 7th, a month and a half after the end of his suspension. The drama is running full speed, each episode boosts the machine and further compromises the “quilt” strategy.
On top of that, “to better prepare his defense”, Alexandre Benalla asked and obtained on July 18th from three officials of the Prefecture of Police of Paris the recordings of the incidents of May 1st. A second case in the affair. Being informed on July 19th, the Prefect of Police immediately takes the initiative to report the facts to the Paris state Prosecutor according to article 40 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which underlines conversely the inaction of the Élysée, State Home Ministry and… of the Prefect himself after the 1st of May.
How then to avoid the topic from quickly sliding on the political ground?
The French opposition, right or left, seizes the affair and takes advantage of the forum offered by the debate on constitutional reform to question the State Home Ministry , then the Prime Minister and finally the President himself, through ceaseless law reminders. The parliamentary work is soon paralyzed. The posture of indifference shown by the Executive, the President answering the journalists who question him on July 19th about the affair “it interests only you” or the Prime Minister who follows a stage of the Tour de France the next day explaining to the microphone of France 2 “it’s a child’s dream… it is amazing to be here …”, only stimulates the opposition and maintains the debate.
The defenses of the presidential majority and the executive give in successively. On Friday, they accept a Committee of inquiry, on Saturday morning, the dismissal of Alexandre Benalla’s then the postponement of the review of the constitutional reform bill are announced, on Sunday, the Élysée indicates that the President held a meeting, quickly described as a crisis meeting by media. His entourage stresses that the President declared to his interlocutors that the attitude of his former collaborator was “shocking and unacceptable” and “that it was no question to accredit the idea of any kind of impunity”. He is thought to have recognized the existence of dysfunctions and asked his General Secretary to make a reorganization proposal for the Presidency services. The soap goes on even more.
On Monday, the President indicates that he won’t attend a stage of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees meanwhile the auditions of the Committee of inquiry created by the National Assembly begin. And after hearing the testimonials of the Home Secretary, the Prefect of Police and the President chief of staff, nothing suggests that the works of the members of the Parliament will move away the crisis from the Élysée. Quite the opposite, to hear each of them underlining, through detailed sentences, his solidarity to better assert its lack of responsibility on the merits, everyone understand that the communication of the executive may turn into a noxious trench warfare, even a deadly one.
It becomes clear that the “quilt” (or cover up) strategy only amplified and fed the media crisis at the risk of leading to a major political crisis. His choice reveals an analysis error of the situation that is added to the one made after May 1st.
A break is imperative.
It will come with the intervention of the President who imposes 180 degrees change. From the “quilt” strategy, we move to that of confession. But in a specific Macron way, since it sounds like a claim, that of a fully assumed responsibility! In two sentences to claim that he is the only one responsible, by refusing a Republic of fuses and punished officials, Emmanuel Macron regains the Jupiterian register in which he excels. The choice of the methods is also wise: it helps to create the surprise without having the solemnity of an intervention on TV, necessarily more dangerous. The President cuts off further discussion on the role of his collaborators and avoids making it the soap opera of the summer.
Here we have all the elements of a takeover of the media situation: a strong and clear statement, at a time and in a form that no one expected. The initiative and the control of the media debate change sides. Still Emmanuel Macron should have limited his declaration to these two sentences, the following ones and in particular the now famous “they can come and get me” made Jupiter coming down from his Mount Olympus and only restarted the most political controversy. And his statements the next day, while travelling in the Pyrenees, questioning the work of media, are likely to be the beginning of the implementation of the third strategy usually used to cope with a crisis. After denial and claim came the time of diversion.
A real case study !