Though many French politicians and presidents before him had also come face to face with public ire in varied innovative ways, with some spat at and others having flour, ketchup and pies hurled at them, Emmanuel Macron last week became the first sitting head of state in France to be slapped.
While Macron was visiting the village of Tain-l'Hermitage in the southeastern Drome region on June 8, Damien Tarel, a young man in the crowd, grabbed the president's wrist as he approached for a handshake before striking him in the face with an open palm.
Wearing a green t-shirt, Tarel rehashed the French army's ancient battle cry "Montjoie Saint-Denis, down with Macronie," to lambast the national policies under Macron, who had previously suffered an egg thrown at his face in a past similar incident.
The 28-year old attacker was an unemployed young Drome resident displeased with the ruling government and was later revealed to be a supporter of the royalist and nationalist movements in the country seeking to restore the kingdom of France, while also being influenced by far-right.
Local media have pointed to Tarel's social media profile, saying it suggests interest in medieval French history, along with the nationalists and resurgent royalists, who oppose the French Revolution of 1776 that put an end to the Bourbon monarchy and promulgated France's First Republic.
These groups harp on France's "glorious royal history," advocating for French sovereignty as opposed to European identity and calling for a so-called "Frexit" from the EU. They describe themselves as patriots and are anti-immigration and anti-Muslim.
Tarel has founded two associations in Drome on historical European martial arts and board games with figurines. His Instagram account shows a photo of him dressed in knight armor with black headgear and a longsword by his side.
He follows on YouTube the discourse of far-right figures like Henry de Lesquen, a holocaust denier who has been convicted for incitement to hatred, and Cercle Richelieu, a French royalist think-tank seeking to "facilitate the king's return to France." He also supports Action Francaise on Facebook, a royalist movement founded in 1898 to "defend the heritage until the return of the heir."
- Impulsive but symbolic
A day after the incident in Tain-l'Hermitage, Action Francaise came out in Tarel's support on Twitter and on its online blog without naming him specifically.
Referring to the slap, the group said the "gesture" was "not glorious" but was "in line" with what it called Macron's clownery and came after "four years of contemptuous power, blind and deaf to the real expectations of the French."
"The French do not want to meet Emmanuel Macron: they want him to listen to them, without constantly explaining to them that they have not understood anything," it said in one of its tweets. "The French want a strong France, capable of ensuring their security ... provide them with real work ... decent income ... real education. Not a France which is constantly declining."
In a testimony to the court the following day, Tarel's revelation echoed Action Francaise.
Explaining that he had intended to do "something striking" to challenge the president on political matters, he said that he had come to regret his impulsive reaction that resulted in the slap.
Tarel further claimed that the slap was "symbolic" of the "injustice" that many French people felt, including the demonstrating supporters of the yellow vest protests, the workers' movement that gripped France in 2018 with large sections of the middle class coming out against the government's economic policies. They were later marred with violence, riots, and looting by members of ultraright and ultraleft groups.
Tarel also said he felt invested in the movement but was let down by the government as the opinion of the French people who expressed themselves through the demonstrations were not heard appropriately. In his view, "Macron represents the downfall of the country."
He argued that his words, "down with Macronie," had had an impact on the president, the yellow vest movement, and French patriots.
- Not a revisionist
Details from Tarel's social media accounts and profile also suggest influence from the far right. He admitted to giving a copy of Adolf Hitler's autobiography Mein Kampf to friend and accomplice Arthur C, who was also detained for filming the attack.
Photos of Tarel dressed in the likeness of Hitler were also found on his phone. During his testimony in court, he also defended far-right youth group Generation Identity, which was outlawed earlier this year for inciting discrimination, spreading hatred, and violence against Muslims and immigrants.
Tarel, who has no criminal history, told that court that the photo of him as Hitler was a "bad joke," and admitted to visiting websites that peddled conspiracy theories, denied the holocaust, or argued against the banning of gas chambers.
"I'm not a revisionist, it's the censorship that I dislike," he insisted.
Tarel’s defense of his influences and subtle endorsement of the far right echoes the majoritarianism that has become prevalent in many parts of Europe, excluding and overlooking the experiences of groups marginalized from mainstream integration. Many see this trend also as an underlying factor fomenting increasingly violent confrontations and tensions between majority and minority populations in the country.
After the event, Macron said the slap was "foolish and violent" and should not be looked upon as anything other than an isolated action, refuting claims that French society was experiencing "widespread social violence."
"I think that there are many citizens who are fatigued by the epidemic, that there are among some of our fellow citizens fear, doubt, anxiety, the consequences of loneliness," he said in an interview with the BFMTV news network.
Tarel did not dispute the facts of his action and was held guilty, sentenced to four months in jail. In total, he was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, 14 of which were suspended for two years, during which he will have to undergo psychological counseling. He was also banned from holding any public office for life, possessing weapons for five years, and deprived of civil rights for three years.