Man held over Macron slap was medieval swordsmanship fan

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron is protected by a security member after getting slapped by a member of the public during a visit in Tain-L'Hermitage, France, in this still image taken from video on June 8, 2021. BFMTV/ReutersTV via REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) - The man alleged to have slapped French President Emmanuel Macron in the face ran a club for enthusiasts of medieval swordsmanship and had no previous criminal record, two sources familiar with the investigation said on Wednesday.

A police source identified the suspect as 28-year-old Damien Tarel. Acquaintances in his hometown of Saint-Vallier, in southeastern France, described a man who loved period role-play and did not cause trouble.

Tarel is under investigation for assault against a public official, the local prosecutor said.

Macron, who was on a trip to take the country's pulse after the pandemic and with less than a year to go before the next presidential election, was hit on Tuesday during a walkabout in southern France as he greeted a small crowd of onlookers.

The president reached out to greet a man, who shouted "Down with Macronia" and "Montjoie Saint Denis", the battle cry of the French army when the country was a monarchy, and slapped Macron across the cheek.

A source close to the investigation described Tarel as someone who was "a bit lost, a bit geeky, a bit of a gamer".

Tarel and a second man were still in police custody on Wednesday, the source added. The charge of assault against a public official carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail and a 45,000 euro fine.

Reuters was not able to identify Tarel's lawyer.

Tarel managed a local club focused on the practice of historical European martial arts, including traditional swordsmanship, and had founded a board game club called "The Knights of the Square Table".

Aurélien Laniece, a friend of Tarel, told Reuters he knew him as a decent person ready to help neighbours and who liked teaching his passion to others.

Laniece expressed surprise at reports in French media that Tarel's social media accounts showed he followed far-right and monarchist groups. Reuters could not corroborate this because Tarel's accounts had been made private.

"He's not the kind of guy to do that (hit someone)," Laniece said. "Lockdown was hard, but he was keen to work on the reopening."

Government officials have expressed concern in recent weeks about pent-up frustrations erupting after lockdown. France has been under a curfew for more than seven months.

Macron said he had not feared for his safety, and continued shaking hands with members of the public after he was struck.

"You cannot have violence, or hate, either in speech or actions. Otherwise, it's democracy itself that is threatened," he told a local newspaper after the incident.

Macron has been targeted before by disenchanted citizens. He was pelted with eggs by trade unionists over labour reforms when he was economy minister in 2016. Two years later was left shaken after being heckled by anti-government protesters.

"We can disagree with what President Macron has done. We vote next year and there will be plenty of people voting against him, said Parisian Louis Bernard "but this electoral campaign cannot be based on violence."

(Reporting by Tangi Salaun and Caroline Pailliez; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)

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