As a relaxed looking Mr Sarkozy greeted onlookers, a man’s hand suddenly shot out from the crowd over a metal barricade, firmly grabbing the diminutive president by the shoulder of his suit.
With a powerful tug, Hermann Fuster, a 32-year old municipal theatre worker from Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne region, pulled the French leader towards the stunned crowd from behind the security fence.
Almost forced to the ground, the president – a keen runner and cyclist who follows a gruelling exercise programme – managed to stay on his feet and recoil.
His bodyguards then swiftly intervened, arresting the assailant, who was unarmed. Mr Fuster was detained and questioned in the nearby town of Agen.
The Elysée said it would not be pressing charges – which could have resulted in a sentence of up to three years in prison and a £40,000 fine for assaulting a public figure.
Quizzed by journalists after the incident, Mr Sarkozy said: “No problem, no problem”.
The scuffle took place as the president was on a rare “meet and greet” stroll with a crowd in the town of Brax, southwestern France after attending a meeting of mayors.
The local mayor, Michel Bernines, said: “The president was shaking hands when suddenly a person from the second or third row…grabbed him by the shoulder and was clearly going to punch him when security intervened.”
Francois Hollande, a Socialist presidential hopeful said the president’s “physical intergrity” should be respected at all costs.
This is the first time Mr Sarkozy has been physically assaulted at close quarters, but the president has been subjected to a string of unpleasant verbal onslaughts in recent years.
In 2008 he was involved in a slanging match with a member of the public at a farm show in Paris, telling him: “Get lost, you poor cretin” after the man had refused to shake his hand, crying: “Don’t touch, you’re dirtying me.”
Mr Sarkozy threatened to have a fistfight with a fisherman who had been heckling him about his high salary while on a visit to Brittany.
High-rise housing estates around major cities are out of bounds for the president, where he is at risk of receiving projectiles. Anger in the estates stems from when he described a gang of young delinquents in a housing project as “rabble” while interior minister. Nationwide suburban riots followed shortly after.
The president has also received death threats in the form of bullets at the Elysée Palace.
The attack was the last thing the deeply unpopular Mr Sarkozy needed as he seeks to woo back voters ahead of next year’s presidential elections. He has attended a string of provincial events to improve his image.
Police gave no immediate indication as to why Mr Fuster, a receptionist and caretaker at Agen municipal conservatoire of music and dance, carried out yesterday’s attack.
But he describes himself as a “state sector idler” on the social networking site Copains d’Avant (Friends from Before) and a fan of On Modern Servitude; the 2007 book by French author Jean-François Brient claims that modern man is a slave of a totally capitalistic system.
Mr Sarkozy has often been criticised by the Left for being the “president of the rich”