Judges quiz three top aides of Emmanuel Macron as French president hit by Elysée staff exodus

Emmanuel Macron, France's president, waves while Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, not pictured, departs from the courtyard of Elysee Palace in Paris
Emmanuel Macron is facing a wave of departures from the Elysée palace with some advisors suffering from burn-out and others with legal woes Credit:  Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

French judges have quizzed Emmanuel Macron’s three closest Elysée aides concerning the ongoing scandal involving the presidency’s former bodyguard.

The latest setback for the French president came amid an exodus of advisors from the Elysée.

Some 17 of his 53 aides have left the palace this week amid reports several were suffering from “exhaustion” or faced legal woes themselves. The president, they say cuts an increasingly lonely figure and while he may be good at striking a Napoleonic pose, is hopeless at human resources. 

The judges summoned Alexis Kohler, secretary general of the Elysée and Mr Macron right-hand man, as a “witness” along with Patrick Strzoda, his principal private secretary and François-Xavier Lauch, his chef de cabinet, a civil party.

The questioning came two days after Paris prosecutors launched a probe into alleged false testimony in the case of Alexandre Benalla, Mr Macron’s ex-security officer who was filmed beating protesters at last year's May Day rally. The video went viral online.

Judges summoned French presidential cabinet director Patrick Strzoda (L), his chief of staff Alexis Kohler (C) and chef de cabinet Francois-Xavier Lauch Credit:  THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

At first, the Elysée sought to play down the incident before firing Mr Benalla in the face of widespread uproar but the case continues to poison his presidency amid claims of amateurism at best and a cover-up at worst.

Mr Benalla is facing a perjury probe along with Vincent Crase, a former employee of  Mr Macron's ruling party, and Mr Strzoda. Perjury can be punished in France with up to five years in jail.

In this case, judges were seeking to understand how Mr Benalla was able to keep and use his diplomatic passport after being fired.

Wednesday’s summons came after a Senatorial commission found "major flaws" in the government's handling of the Benalla affair and said it suspected Mr Macron's aides of trying to cover up some of the details.

There were, it said, “incoherence and contradictions” in the testimony of several protagonists, including Mr Kohler and Mr Strzoda.

Emmanuel Macron's presidency continues to be overshadowed by the Alexandre Benalla case Credit: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

After a harrowing few months in the face of yellow vest protests, Mr Macron is said to be exhausted and worryingly haggard without his make-up.

In recent weeks, he has lost the support of most his original inner circle of loyalists who helped sweep him to power and dubbed the Mormons.

Among those who have thrown in the towel is Ismaël Emilien, 32, the political strategist who is said to have played a crucial role in Mr Macron’s 2017 election campaign. Officially, he stepped down to publicise a book on political progressivism along with David Amiel, 26, the deputy chief of staff, who has also left. Critics say he had become a liability for spreading fake news, which he denies.

Sylvain Fort, 47, Mr Macron’s speechwriter, also quit, officially for family reasons. Others say he failed in his job to improve frosty relations between Mr Macron and the press.

Some accuse the workaholic president of being a slave driver prone to sending text messages at 2am. 

“Everyone’s knackered,” one ex-advisor told FranceTVInfo. “Lots of couples have blown up. The workload often ends up with a suitcase on the doormat,” another is cited as saying.

Observers say the fact he has drafted in government advisers as replacements suggests he is already scraping the barrel in terms of personnel.

“It’s a bit like making a 91st-minute football substitution exception in this case, we’re only halfway through the presidency,” said one commentator.