PARIS — Emmanuel Macron reached out to pat the arm of a man in the crowd, a physical intimacy not often seen since the onset of the pandemic, but even more surprising was the gesture the French president got in return on Tuesday: an apparent slap aimed at his face-masked cheek.
The man could be heard shouting, "Montjoie Saint Denis," a royalist battle cry, and "Down with Macronism," before the security detail rushed in.
He and a second man, both 28, were detained afterward.
The incident occurred in the Drôme region in southeast France, where Macron was meeting with hospitality workers — and trying to signal optimism, as the country prepares for the next reopening step on Wednesday, when restaurants will once again be able to serve customers indoors.
Even though French media outlets widely referred to the incident as a slap, Macron’s administration only confirmed that a slap had been attempted.
In an interview with the Dauphiné libéré local newspaper, Macron did not go into further details about what had happened.
“We must respect the Republic’s offices, and I will never give up this fight,” he told the paper. But he cautioned that he does not want “isolated incidents” and “ultraviolent individuals” to dominate the public debate.
Even if isolated, the incident’s timing could hardly have been more unfortunate for the French president, who has been on a self-declared mission to take the pulse of the nation, touring France’s villages and towns weeks ahead of regional elections.
Tuesday’s incident may also feed questions about public attitudes toward Macron in advance of his own reelection fight next year, when he could face an emboldened Marine Le Pen, of the far right.
Le Pen has tried to capitalize on the pandemic’s impact on the French economy, skepticism among conservative voters that Macron has been tough enough on crime, and disappointment among liberals who had hoped the president would take bolder steps to further their goals.
Frustration and anger with Macron have spilled out into the open before, including in 2019, when anti-government protesters booed him at the Bastille Day military parade.
But Tuesday’s slapping incident crossed a line, even according to Macron’s political critics, and was condemned across the political spectrum.
Le Pen said “it is unacceptable to physically attack the President of the Republic,” while far-left political leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon vowed “solidarity with the president.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex denounced the incident, saying “violence, verbal aggression and even less physical aggression” have no place in democracy.
Macron’s tour across the country has prompted criticism, however, as some see it as a political campaign stunt. Most French government members are bound by strict campaign rules ahead of elections, with the aim to prevent officials from using their office to further their own political goals.