An official photo showing Emmanuel Macron hitting a punch bag. Image Credit: Soazig de la Moissoniere

PARIS: Where politicians once looked to project health and fitness with jogs in the park, martial sports like boxing have now gained the upper hand, with France’s Emmanuel Macron the latest to strap on gloves.

The 46-year-old president was pictured on Wednesday pounding a punching bag, forearms bulging, in images posted to the Instagram account of his official photographer, Soazig de la Moissoniere.

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The black and white photos show the president in a black t-shirt, his jaw clenched, hammering a heavy bag.

The photos underscore the hawkish posture that Macron has adopted against Russia as well as the pressure he has been putting on other European countries to take a stronger stance to support Kyiv. France agreed with Germany last week to start producing weapons in Ukraine.

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“(Macron) is a technocrat having a go at the populist style, by trying to respond to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin on his own turf,” said Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, an expert in political communication.

AFP did not republish Macron’s pictures, as it does not use handouts from the French presidency.

Social media users questioned whether the photos had been “enhanced”.

Doubters pointed to the size of his biceps, and re-posted the boxing picture alongside an image of Macron with a skinnier arm.

The images follow weeks in which Macron has defended his comments about not ruling out sending Nato troops to fight in Ukraine, atacked by the Russian leader more than two years ago.

Putin has often sought to project physical prowess with judo or boxing bouts and a now infamous bare-chested horse riding excursion in 2009.

French voters were more used to seeing conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy in a tracksuit or on his mountain bike, or 1970s leader Valery Giscard d’Estaing on the football pitch or the ski slopes.

With boxing, Macron has turned to a sport “compatible with exercising state power”” Moreau-Chevrolet said.

“It’s a violent sport but with rules - like politics. As often with Emmanuel Macron, it’s also a very theatrical image of a hero overcoming suffering,” he added.

‘Overcome the fear’

The French president is far from the first Western leader to pull on gloves.

Justin Trudeau’s defeat of a conservative MP in a charity bout in 2012 may have contributed to him claiming the Canadian premiership three years later.

Boxing has numerous acolytes in the French political class, with Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe a passionate fighter.

The sport taught him to “overcome the fear you can feel in scary situations”, he has said.

Conservative women politicians have also stepped into the ring in France, including the leader of the Paris region, Valerie Pecresse, and Rachida Dati, now Macron’s culture minister.

“Even if people might think it’s an odd sport for a woman, it projects the image of being a fighter,” Pecresse told weekly Le Point.

Some sections of the political spectrum did have an immediate allergic reaction to Macron’s pictures.

Voluble Greens party MP Sandrine Rousseau complained of “masculinist codes used to excess” in a post on X, the same language she had used to condemn Macron’s talk of sending troops to Ukraine.

“What a miserable form of politics. What a defeat for progressivism. What lazy political communication,” she added.

Surging numbers

Turning to physically robust sports has not always played well for politicians.

Britain’s Boris Johnson - himself pictured in the past wearing red boxing gloves - was left red-faced in 2015 when he flattened a 10-year-old Japanese rugby fan while playing during a visit to Tokyo.

But the number of fans among the public keeps leaders from throwing in the towel.

In France, the national boxing federation boasted 60,000 members last year - more than double the figure for 2021.

Boxing has also migrated from being a working-class sport once beloved of the French Communist party to a more middle-class pursuit, with gyms springing up in wealthy cities like Paris.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has also been growing in popularity since the sport, which combines kickboxing and wrestling, was legalised in France by Macron’s government in 2020.

The first bouts organised by global outfit Ultimate Fighting Championship were held in 2022 and are now broadcast regularly on TV channel RMC sport.

MMA counts tens of thousands of fighters and hundreds of clubs across France.