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Emmanuel Macron (C), head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, flanked by Alexandre Benalla (L), head of security, attends a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017. Picture taken May 5, 2017 . REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

(reuters_tickers)

By Jean-Baptiste Vey and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron fired the head of his personal security detail on Friday but faced criticism for failing to act sooner, after video was released showing the bodyguard posing as a police officer and beating a protester while off duty in May.

Alexandre Benalla was initially given just a 15-day suspension for the incident, which occurred when he attended May Day protests in a riot helmet and police identification tags.

Judicial sources told Reuters the bodyguard -- who just days ago was seen in public helping to organise security for celebrations for the return of France's World Cup champion football team -- was now being held by police.

Lawmakers have launched a parliamentary inquiry into the incident, Benalla's lenient initial punishment and the failure of the authorities to report him promptly to the judiciary.

In the footage, which was released on Wednesday by Le Monde newspaper, Benalla can be seen dragging a woman away from a protest and later beating a male demonstrator. On Friday, French media released a second video which showed Benalla also manhandling the woman.

The president's office brushed off accusations that it had responded only because the nearly three-month-old videos had become public. It said the decision had now been taken to fire Benalla because the bodyguard had improperly obtained a document while trying to make his case over the accusations.

"New facts that could constitute a misdemeanour by Alexandre Benalla were brought to the president's attention," an official at the presidential palace told Reuters. "As a result ... the presidency has decided to start Alexandre Benalla's dismissal procedure."

DELAYED RESPONSE

But critics of Macron called the president's delayed response to the incident another sign that he was out of touch. It follows controversies over government spending on official crockery, a swimming pool at a presidential retreat and cutting remarks by the president about the costs of welfare.

Opposition parties condemned the presidency's handling of the matter, demanding answers as to why the incident had not been referred promptly to judicial authorities. After hours of debate in the lower house on Thursday, lawmakers agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the case.

Several French media outlets reported that Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who on Thursday asked for an internal police investigation into the incident, was aware of the video on May 2, the day after it was filmed.

Judicial sources said Benalla was now in police custody, being questioned both over the incident itself and for acquiring police footage of the incident on Thursday.

After the 15-day suspension, Benalla was brought back into the president's immediate entourage. He appears in many photos alongside Macron during public events and private trips, including a skiing holiday in December.

"This is an extremely bad phase for the president and I am not sure that reacting late will change the situation," Jean-Daniel Levy, a political analyst for Harris pollsters told Reuters. "It reinforces the image of a rather authoritarian person who sometimes shows arrogance."

(Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Editing by John Irish and Peter Graff)

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Reuters