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Sarkozy in tug-of-love over Joan of Arc

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Sarkozy in tug-of-love over Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc statue in rue de Rivoli, Paris. Photo by Joan Villarante-Kavianifar
02:46 CET+01:00

President Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen this week embark on a tug-of-love over the French patron saint Joan of Arc, a surprise player in the upcoming presidential election.

The two leaders are to stage rival celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the birth of the 15th-century Catholic martyr who has been appropriated by the far-right partly for her booting out of medieval English "immigrants".

The teenage peasant led the French army against the English after experiencing religious visions and was later burned at the stake, but her broad appeal to French of all political colours has ensured her immortality.

France is officially a secular state, but the story of Joan's struggle against the English and Burgundians on behalf of the French crown has often served as an inspiration in patriotic causes.

She is regularly wheeled out as a symbol of French unity, alongside such Gallic icons as general Charles de Gaulle or Vercingetorix, who defied the Romans like a real-life Asterix.

Her broad appeal is key: French Catholics see in her a saint, nationalists see her as a royalist warrior who kicked out the English, while Socialists can hail her humble origins, although she was the daughter of a landowner.

Centre-right leader Sarkozy, who is likely to face a strong challenge from Le Pen when he stands for re-election in April, has seized upon the anniversary to make his own pilgrimage to locations associated with her life.

On Friday, he will visit her birthplace in Domremy-la-Pucelle in the Vosges mountains of eastern France and nearby Vaucouleurs, which she is said to have visited on her way to meet king Charles VII.

The following day, the National Front (FN) - including leader Marine Le Pen and her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen - will stage a rally in central Paris at the base of a statue of the saint.

Joan of Arc, sometimes known in English as the Maid of Orleans, was canonised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

The National Front has, like the far-right monarchist Action Française movement before it, tried to appropriate Joan of Arc and organises a parade in her honour every May 1st.

The populist anti-immigration Le Pen said Sarkozy's homage to Joan of Arc was a bid to steal votes.

"We are the inspiration for the presidential election's key issues: immigration, insecurity, protectionism and now, great historical figures," Marine Le Pen said.

An official from Sarkozy's UMP party admitted the aim of reappropriating the Maid of Orleans.

"By trying to reappropriate, in the name of the nation, the symbol of Joan of Arc, the president hopes to show National Front voters that his values are not so far from their own," said an official from Sarkozy's UMP party.

"And so that he deserves their vote in the second round" of the presidential election - if Marine Le Pen does not herself make it that far. On Thursday, Le Pen complained she is even in danger of not securing enough backers to qualify as a candidate in the elections. 

But Sarkozy's Elysee office dismissed suggestions of electioneering.

"It is the head of state's role to pay homage to great figures in our history of France, as he has done with (Martinique writer and politician) Aimé Césaire or Charles de Gaulle," said an aide to Sarkozy.

"Joan of Arc means secular patriotism and a Catholic saint, a symbol of national unity, not just of the National Front," said Christian Vanneste, an MP from the UMP's right.

"Enough of this typically French debate on the appropriation of history."

Like accusations that Sarkozy is pandering to far-right voters, the battle over Joan of Arc is not new.

"Joan is France," Sarkozy said during the 2007 presidential election. "How could we have let the extreme right confiscate Joan of Arc for so long?"

Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus noted the "amazing coincidence" of Sarkozy honouring Joan of Arc 100 days ahead of the presidential election.

"What will be interesting," said history lecturer Olivier Dard, "is to see which Joan of Arc he will put forward."

 

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