French President Emmanuel Macron was slapped in the face while greeting a crowd in southeast France on Tuesday, in a shock incident he shrugged off as “isolated” but which drew widespread condemnation in a tense political climate.
Video footage on social media shows Macron approach a barrier to meet and shake hands with voters, where a man in a green T-shirt takes hold of his forearm before slapping him.
At the same time, someone can be heard shouting an old French royalist battle cry, and “Down with Macronism”.
Macron’s bodyguards quickly intervened and two people were detained after the incident in the village of Tain l’Hermitage, local officials said.
“At around 1:15 pm (1115 GMT) the president got into his car after visiting a high school, but got back out because onlookers were calling to him,” the prefecture for the Drome region said.
“He went to meet them and that’s when the incident took place.”
Two 28-year-old men living in the region are being questioned, said local prosecutor Alex Perrin. But “at this stage of questioning, their motives remain unknown”.
The incident took place in a tense and increasingly polarised political climate in France, weeks ahead of regional elections and less than a year before presidential polls.
In an interview with the Dauphine Libere newspaper, Macron insisted he was unafraid and would continue to meet people in this way.
“I am doing fine. We must put this incident, which I think is an isolated event, into perspective,” he said.
He added: “Let’s not let isolated events, ultra-violent individuals… take hold of the public debate: they do not merit it.”
– Election tour –
The assault sparked outrage across the political spectrum and overshadowed what Macron has billed as a listening tour to “take the country’s pulse”.
“Politics can never be violence, verbal aggression, much less physical aggression,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told parliament, adding that “through the president, it is democracy that has been targeted”.
Macron continued meeting the public, alongside his wife Brigitte.
“I always seek out contact, within shouting distance, as I say. I want it,” he said afterwards.
He described the slapping as “stupidity — and when stupidity combines with violence, it is unacceptable.”
In the video someone can be heard shouting “Montjoie Saint Denis!”, a medieval battle cry associated with fringe right-wingers who want France to return to being a monarchy. The phrase also features in the 1993 hit French comedy “Les Visiteurs”.
One of the men arrested appears to practise medieval combat, according to an Instagram account in his name.
Macron, who remains a highly divisive figure, is widely expected to seek a second term in next year’s presidential elections. Polls show him with a narrow lead over far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
His nationwide tour includes around a dozen stops over the next two months, with the former investment banker keen to meet voters in person after more than a year of Covid-19 crisis management.
But previous meet-and-greets have seen the reformer verbally abused.
A 2018 tour to mark the centenary of the end of World War I saw furious citizens booing and heckling him.
It took place just as “yellow vest” protests were gaining momentum, denouncing the government’s policies as well as Macron’s personal leadership style, which was criticised as aloof and arrogant.
Macron and his wife Brigitte were also verbally abused by protesters while out on a walk in Paris last July.
– Condemnation –
Shortly before the slapping incident, Macron was asked to comment on recent remarks from far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon suggesting that next year’s election would be manipulated.
“Democratic life needs calm and respect, from everyone, politicians as well as citizens,” Macron said.
In a rare moment of national unity, even his fiercest critics and political rivals came to his defence on Tuesday.
Melenchon said he stood “in solidarity with the president”, while Le Pen called the slap “unacceptable and profoundly reprehensible in a democracy”.
The slap is nevertheless likely to spur debate in France about the political climate, just two weeks from the first round of regional elections and 10 months from the presidential contest next April.
“It’s tense everywhere,” ruling party MP Patrick Vignal commented. “This campaign stinks and it’s because of the personalities. No one is going to come out a winner.”