French President Emmanuel Macron’s ex-bodyguard has admitted he made a “mistake" when he beat protesters at a demonstration, but said the scandal his violence unleashed was being used “to get at the president" by his opponents.
The president for his part dismissed the affair as a "storm in a teacup", but furious criticism from his political enemies showed no sign of abating and parliamentary committees continued their grilling of top Elysée officials and police chiefs.
Alexandre Benalla, the bodyguard who faces criminal charges after videos emerged of him manhandling May Day demonstrators in Paris while wearing a police helmet and armband, spoke publicly on Thursday for the first time since the scandal broke last week.
"I don’t feel I betrayed the president, I feel I made a big mistake," he said in an interview with Le Monde, the paper which broke the story when it posted videos of the 26-year-old hitting one protester and violently wrestling another.
Revelations that top Elysée officials knew about the incident have sparked furious opposition claims of a cover-up.
“I should never have gone to that demonstration as an observer, and maybe (having gone), I should have remained in the background,” Mr Benalla told Le Monde, adding that he had provided a way for opponents to attack the president.
"It’s a way of grabbing the president by the scruff of the neck. I was the way in to get at him, the weak link,” he said.
Mr Benalla also claimed to be the victim of score-settling within the ranks of the police and that senior politicians had orchestrated the publication of the videos.
“The people who got this information out are of a high level… police officers and politicians,” he told the paper.
Mr Macron on Thursday again sought to downplay the scandal.
"I’ve said what I had to say, which is that I think it’s a storm in a teacup," he told AFP news agency during a visit to the village of Campan in southwest France.
He has accused his opponents of "disproportionate actions", and said he remained proud to have hired Mr Benalla as he was a "devoted" employee who had "taken an unusual path" professionally.
Christian Jacob of the Right-wing Les Républicains party, who like many opponents has accused Mr Macron of displaying arrogance in his response, condemned what he called the president of "monarchical leanings".
"We’re facing a very serious incident – the president must explain himself before the people, he cannot do it with the disdain and provocation with which he has done so thus far," he told Franceinfo radio.
Opposition MPs have repeatedly called on Macron to address the nation over the affair.