French President Emmanuel Macron was slapped across the face by a bystander during a trip to southeast France on Tuesday in a security scare on the second stop of a nationwide tour.
Images on social media and broadcast on the BFM news channel showed Macron approach a barrier to greet voters, where a long-haired man in a green t-shirt took hold of his elbow and then slapped him.
Macron’s bodyguards quickly intervened and two people were detained afterwards, local officials said.
The incident in the village of Tain-l’Hermitage in the Drome region sparked outrage across the political spectrum and overshadowed the start of Macron’s tour, which he said was designed 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 his trip afterwards, said an aide, who described the incident as an “attempted slap” though video footage appeared to show the man making contact with the president’s face.
On the video of the incident, someone can be heard shouting “Down with Macronism!”
– Election tour –
Macron, who remains a highly divisive figure, is widely expected to seek a second term in next year’s presidential elections and polls show him with a narrow lead over far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
His planned nationwide tour includes around a dozen separate stops over the next two months, with the former investment banker keen to meet voters in person after more than a year of crisis management over the Covid-19 pandemic.
He has spoken regularly of his fondness for informal exchanges with citizens — “making contact” as he calls it — but previous meet-and-greet initiatives have seen the reformer verbally abused.
A 2018 multi-stop tour to mark the centenary of the end of World War I was marked by scenes of furious citizens booing and heckling him.
It took place just as anti-government “yellow vest” protests were gathering momentum to denounce the government’s policies and the head of state personally for his leadership style, which was criticised as aloof and arrogant.
Macron conducted another tour billed as a listening exercise in the aftermath of protests in 2019, which shook the country and saw him promise to change his way of governing.
In July last year, Macron and his wife Brigitte were verbally abused by a group of protesters while taking an impromptu walk through the Tuileries gardens in central Paris on Bastille Day.
– Condemnation –
Shortly before being slapped on Tuesday, Macron had been asked to comment on recent remarks from far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who suggested at the weekend 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 after the event.
Le Pen called the slap “unacceptable and profoundly reprehensible in a democracy,” while Melenchon said he stood “in solidarity with the president.”
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.”
In 2011, right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy had a security scare in southwest France when he was grabbed violently by the shoulder by a 32-year-old local government employee.
In 2009, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered face and mouth injuries when a man in a crowd threw a souvenir statuette that hit him in the face.