Learning that my good friend Manny is in deep political trouble, I felt I simply had to offer him a word of consolation and perhaps even advice.
Speaking to me on the phone, Manny had sounded brave and tried to dismiss the gravest crisis of his presidency as “a storm in a D-cup” (Manny is proud of his ability to make silly puns in English).
And he refused to dignify with a comment all the scabrous innuendo that accompanied the purely political attacks in the press.
So what if his bodyguard impersonated a policeman and beat up two protesters during the 1 May fun? “Sacré bleu,” said Manny. “It wasn’t moi who hit those canaille, was it?”
For all his attempts to play the crisis down, I could sense Manny was in distress. That’s why immediately after hanging up I jumped into my car and drove to the Palais de l’Élysée, just two hours away.
I was met at the door by Brigitte, France’s First Foster Mother, who was glad to see me. Apparently my arrival interrupted a screaming fight between the two.
“Manny,” cried Brigitte into the room behind her, “Ici Alexandre to see you, mon petit.”
“Tell him to go away, maman,” Manny half-shouted, half-sobbed. “He’s a nasty and ghastly person, and I never want to see him and his muscles again, not after he dropped me in the merde!”
“But no, it’s not Alexandre Benalla, silly billy,” said Brigitte. “It’s your ami A-lex.” She charmingly pronounced my name with the stress on the second syllable.
“Oh come right in, A-lex,” sobbed Manny. “Please help me. Maman says it’s all my fault!”
“But of course it is, mon petit,” said Brigitte. “You shouldn’t have let that con Benalla dress up like a cop and then act like one.”
“Bien, maman, I admit he acted a bit rough…”
“Franchement, chéri,” cried Brigitte. “Didn’t I tell you mille times never to use that word again! All la presse is talking about is that Benalla was your bit of rough!”
“Just because he covered my back during the campaign…”
Brigitte’s scream made Marie-Antoinette’s dinner service in the corner cupboard chime loudly and discordantly. “Don’t ever say THAT in public, either you espèce de crétin!!! Repeat after me: He! Did NOT! Cover! Your! Back! He was in charge of your security!!! Merde alors!”
“But maman,” protested Manny. “No general can ride into battle with his rear uncovered…”
“Ferme ta gueule! Shut up, you nincompoop, or I’ll ground you for a mois!” I noticed a long time ago that at moments of stress Brigitte instantly slips back into her old persona of a school mistress (no Manny-style pun intended).
“Be reasonable, maman,” pleaded Manny. “Is it my fault that Benalla likes to wear a police helmet when we… face the crowd?”
“Are you saying he’s not only a thug and a pé…, well, you know what he is, but also a fetishist?”
“All I’m saying, maman, is that at least he dressed up as a French cop, pour l’amour de Dieu! He could have dressed up as Ilse Koch, the she-wolf of the SS!”
I felt it was time for me to intercede. “Manny,” I said. “We don’t mean to be prying into the intimate-most details of your private life. But Brigitte is right: you should have sacked him long ago…”
“Oh oui?” whimpered Manny. “How would you like to sack Pénélope?” (He always pronounces my wife’s name à la française.)
This was getting too crazy for words. If a man doesn’t know the difference between a spouse and an employee, and acts accordingly, he’s too far gone to listen to sensible arguments.
“Never mind,” I said. “Concentrate on diffusing the crisis as best you can. How about you issue a public promise, your arm around Brigitte, that no member of your security detail, nor any French policeman, will ever again stamp on a protester unless severely provoked?”
“You know, I can’t do that, A-lex,” sighed Manny. “No one would believe such a promesse. This is France, mon ami. It’s our contrat social. They riot, we stamp on them. Everybody understands.”
“And that other stuff?”
“Everybody understands that too. This is France, mon ami.”