By Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron's former senior bodyguard, fired for beating May Day protesters, said in a newspaper interview on Thursday that he had made a "big mistake" that had been exploited by his boss's enemies.
Alexandre Benalla was dismissed last week after video footage showed him hitting a male protester and dragging away a woman while he was off duty and wearing a riot helmet and police tags.
Critics say Macron's office failed to properly punish Benalla, or refer him promptly to judicial authorities over an incident which has triggered the biggest political crisis of his tenure.
Benalla told Le Monde in his first interview since the crisis erupted that "politicians and police" whom he did not name, had used the incident for their own ends.
"I was the weak link ... my case has been used to settle scores, it's taken on proportions... I won't say I was the fall-guy, I'm just saying it served various interests, an interest to get at the president of the republic," Benalla said.
Opposition lawmakers have launched a united offensive against Macron saying his handling of the case shows he has lost touch with ordinary people since taking office 14 months ago.
Benalla is now the target of a judicial investigation and there are also probes under way in the upper and lower houses of parliament into how Macron's office dealt with the incident.
Outraged by the refusal of Macron's party to allow key members of his office to be questioned in the lower house, all opposition parties withdrew their participation from the investigation.
Macron remained unapologetic and defiant on Thursday.
"I think this a storm in a teacup," he said during a visit to the Pyrenees in southwestern France. "It's not affecting me, don't worry. I'm here with my fellow citizens."
Benalla, who said he did not feel betrayed by the president, gave an insight into life at the Elysee.
Macron's top-down leadership, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Francois Hollande's much-mocked "Mr Normal" style, has increasingly grated with his opponents.
"Everything at the Elysee is based on how close people think you are to the president. Did he smile at you, call you by your name, etcetera. It’s a court phenomenon," Benalla told Le Monde.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and John Irish; Editing by Stephen Powell and Andrew Heavens)
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Updated Date: Jul 27, 2018 00:08 AM