There were gasps in Croydon magistrates' court yesterday as the sentence was handed down and Cantona was led to a cell beneath the court in south London.
Within three hours, however, Cantona, 28, was freed on bail pending an appeal against his sentence. He had pleaded guilty to a charge of common assault after his attack on Matthew Simmons, 20, at Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace Football Club, on 25 January.
Jean-Jacques Amorfini, Cantona's agent, said: "We are dumbfounded and absolutely shocked. I think people are trying to make Cantona disgusted with England and, obviously, I believe he is going to have to leave the country." Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards said he was shocked by the sentence and the club's star striker had now been punished three times for one offence.
In a statement read out to the court by his barrister, David Poole QC, Cantona said he had been "angry and frustrated" at being sent off mid- way through the game and was leaving the pitch when he heard Mr Simmons shouting racist abuse.
Mr Simmons, who Jeffery McCann, prosecuting, said ran down 11 rows to taunt Cantona, is to face public order charges.
Cantona said Mr Simmons' face was "contorted with hatred" and he was hurling abuse. "This, with my additional frustration [at being sent off], caused me to react in a way I now deeply regret by jumping up and kicking out at the man's chest," he said.
In mitigation, Mr Poole said Cantona had already been punished, having been fined two weeks' wages, £10,800, by his club and given club and Football Association bans that would keep him out of the game until October.
But the magistrates said the only appropriate sentence was jail. "You are a high profile figure with undoubted gifts and as such you are looked up to by young people," the chairwoman told Cantona. The magistrates turned down an application for bail pending an appeal against sentence, but bail was later granted on a £500 surety by a Crown Court judge. The appeal will be heard in eight days.
Paul Ince, another Manchester United player, pleaded not guilty at the same court yesterday to common assault during the Selhurst Park fracas. He will be tried in May.
Gordon Taylor, leader of the Professional Footballers' Association, said that the court had made an example of Cantona because of his fame.
Leading article, page 18
Further reports, page 40