During a visit by Sarkozy to the Brittany town of Laval in 2008, Hervé Eon, a former social worker and member of the hard-left Parti de Gauche, waved a placard at the president.
On it was written “Casse-toi, pauvre con!”, roughly translatable as “Piss off, loser!”, a phrase that the president himself had used to a man who refused to shake his hand in equally robust terms on another walkabout at the agricultural fair in Paris a few months earlier.
The incident became a YouTube hit and was used as a slogan by Sarkozy’s opponents for the rest of his presidency.
Police arrested Eon and a court later found him guilty of an “affront to the head of state” and fined him, although the 30-euros suspended fine was more symbolic than actual punishment.
But Eon was still outraged that his gesture could be considered a crime.
He appealed in France and lost and then took his case to Strasbourg.
The European court on Thursday judged the phrase “literally speaking offensive” but “in a satirical vein”, the kind of political criticism to which a politician exposes his or herself “inevitably and consciously”.
It was therefore “disproportionate” to punish Eon, even symbolically, the court ruled, adding that the fine could discourage satirical sallies that are a necessary part of democratic debate.
Eon and his lawyer, Dominique Noguères, welcomed the decision but said they regretted the fact that the court had not called for the abolition of the offending the president offence.
The crime is an article in an 1881 law on freedom of the press and can mean a fine of up to 45,000 euros, although it had fallen out of use since the presidency of General Charles de Gaulle.
Another article in the law that banned “affronts to a foreign head of state” was repealed following a European court ruling that it gave an “exorbitant privilege” to foreign leaders.
But on Thursday the judges said that Eon’s case “bore no relation to freedom of the press” and so did not comment on the law.
“Repeal the crime of affront to the president!” declared the leader of Eon’s party, former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon after the judgement.