- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

PARIS — The arm reached out from a crowd of smiling families, grabbed the French president’s shoulder and nearly sent Nicolas Sarkozy to the ground as shocked security agents leapt into action.

An unarmed 32-year-old Frenchman who works in the theater industry and didn’t have a previous police record carried out the act of aggression Thursday against the outspoken and divisive Sarkozy, authorities said, and they are trying to find out why.

The images of the president pulled off balance during a routine handshaking session while on a visit to southwest France were particularly surprising, because Sarkozy usually has an assured physical presence.

He was greeting a crowd of what appeared to be fans in the town of Brax, reaching across a metal barricade to shake outstretched hands. The aggressor then reached out, grabbed Sarkozy’s suit by the shoulder and pulled it forcefully toward the crowd.

Sarkozy started to fall, then immediately recoiled and righted himself with the help of his bodyguards. Security officers descended immediately on the assailant, wrestling him to the ground. Sarkozy’s office would not comment on the incident.

An official with the national gendarme service said the man lives in the Lot-et-Garonne region where the president was visiting and works in the theater business. The official was not authorized to be publicly named because of police policy. The television network i-Tele said he worked at the music conservatory in nearby Agen. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

The man was detained and being questioned in Agen, and prosecutors said other witnesses would also be questioned.

Sarkozy has angered critics with his tough policies on immigration and cutbacks in government spending, and his poll ratings have been quite low for months. He is expected to run for re-election next year, and his presidential visits to the French provinces in recent weeks have the air of campaign stops.

He occasionally gets heckled by critics, though only verbally. In one 2008 incident, a man was caught on video telling Sarkozy not to touch him as the president walked through a crowd. The man accused Sarkozy of “dirtying me,” and Sarkozy snapped back with an insult that mildly translated as “get out of here, you total jerk.”

Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was the object of an assassination attempt in 2002, during a military parade for the Bastille Day national holiday. A far-right activist, Maxime Brunerie, was convicted of attempted murder after he pulled a rifle from a guitar case and shot at Chirac. Chirac was unhurt.

A new poll released Thursday shows that just 25 percent of respondents are satisfied with Sarkozy’s actions, while 73 percent are not. The poll by TNS Sofres polling agency questioned 1,000 people June 24-27. No margin of error was given.

Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.

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