PARIS: French prosecutors have opened a new probe into the actions of a top security aide to President Emmanuel Macron who allegedly roughed up two May Day protesters hours before a violent incident for which he has already been charged.
Two youths aged 23 and 24 lodged a complaint alleging that Alexandre Benalla and co-accused Vincent Crase, a security agent employed by Macron's centrist LREM party, manhandled them in a central Paris park.
Benalla, a former bouncer, was caught on video hitting a protester and wrestling another to the ground later in the day while wearing a police helmet and armband, sparking the most damaging scandal of Macron's presidency since he took office in May 2017.
The 26-year-old Benalla dismissed the new allegations in an interview that appeared Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche weekly, saying he was at the earlier protest as an "observer".
"You can see distinctly, I don't have a helmet, an armband or a radio," he told the paper.
The plaintiffs' lawyer Gregory Saint-Michel said Benalla, Crase and a police officer who was with them are identifiable on a video released by the left-leaning daily Liberation.
Saint-Michel said one of the men grabbed the woman plaintiff's smartphone and erased the video she had been filming of their actions, but she was able to retrieve the footage using special software.
Macron, facing furious criticism over the scandal, last Thursday dismissed it as a "storm in a teacup".
Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans, who like many opponents has charged Macron with displaying arrogance in his response, accused the president of "monarchical leanings".
Jacob introduced a confidence motion against the government which will be debated in the French parliament on Tuesday -- a largely symbolic move, however, since Macron's centrists hold a strong majority.
- 'Really stupid' -
Benalla, who has admitted doing "something really stupid", was charged with assault and impersonating a police officer in the first probe. He has said he merely wanted to help police bring violent protesters under control, insisting he did not commit a crime.
Revelations that top officials in Macron's office knew about the Benalla incident but did not report him to prosecutors have prompted accusations of an attempted cover-up, which the government denies.
Last week, Macron accused his opponents of "disproportionate actions", adding that he remained proud to have hired Benalla as he was a "devoted" employee who had "taken an unusual path" professionally.
Macron's approval ratings, already low, appear to have taken a further hit from the scandal, with a record 60 percent reporting an unfavourable opinion of him in an Ipsos poll published last Tuesday.
Three police officers accused of giving Benalla surveillance footage so he could mount a defence have also been accused in the affair.