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Joan of Arc caught up in French election tussle

On the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Saint Joan of Arc’s birth Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the Catholic saint’s life with a tour of the places that were noteworthy in her life.


On the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Saint Joan of Arc’s birth Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the Catholic saint’s life with a tour of the places that were noteworthy in her life.

However, with just four months left before the presidential election, many in France viewed Sarkozy’s visits as posturing to win over far-right voters rather than out of genuine respect for the famed historical figure.

Speaking at a press conference in the north-eastern town of Domrémy, the birthplace of the medieval heroine in 1412, Sarkozy said France had to defend Joan of Arc as “a symbol of our unity” and chastised “those who use her as a symbol to divide”, in reference to the far-right National Front (FN) party.

For decades Joan of Arc has been an emblem of the FN. The anti-immigration group’s annual march on May 1 always ends with a rally at the foot of the equestrian statue of Saint Joan of Arc at Place de Pyramides in the heart of Paris.

“I think [Sarkozy] is paying tribute to Joan of Arc for the electoral dividends he would like to steal away from us,” the Front’s historical figurehead, Jean-Marie Le Pen, told FRANCE 24 on Thursday.

The FN marked the 600 year anniversary with a ceremony at the Pyramides statue on Saturday. "She surely does not belong to parties who never speak of her or only speak of her during election campaigns," Jean-Marie declared Saturday in a speech to a crowd of around 150 supporters gathered under a Joan of Arc statue in Paris.

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, who took over the party leadership last year and is now its presidential candidate, slammed Sarkozy for being a copycat and for a “lack of imagination.”

Sarkozy has delayed making his candidacy official but is widely expected to seek re-election in April.

The idea that Sarkozy is commemorating Joan of Arc in order to fish for voters is also held outside FN circles. “We are witnessing a political lie. It’s not the president who is paying homage [to Joan of Arc], it is very obviously the presidential candidate,” opined Pierre Patakowsky, president of the French-based League of Human Rights.

From martyr to myth

While her execution for heresy has been dated as May 30, 1431, historians say Joan of Arc’s birthday, like many of the details of her life, remain uncertain. And since her death the legacy of the cross-dressing warrior saint has been no less ambiguous in France.

Nevertheless, the myth remains of the teenage peasant girl who led the French to a famous victory in battle against the English. The legend states that she experienced religious visions urging her to take up the cause, and that her life ended being burnt at the stake by the English.

She was made a saint by Rome in 1920, but according to French historian Claude Gauvard her beatification in 1909 was a much more important event. “[Joan of Arc’s beatification] came just after France’s separation of church and state, and was a way to make peace between the two,” Gauvard explained.

According to Sylvain Crepon, a professor of sociology at Paris X University and an expert on the far-right in France, the myth of Joan of Arc was revived by France’s secular educators in the 19th century to encourage a sentiment of national unity. “She was a symbol of the Republic and even the political left. She was a portrayed as a peasant girl who united a people and swayed kings.”

For Crepon, it was only after Joan of Arc’s image was gradually abandoned by Republicans that she was adopted by hardline Catholics and French nationalists. As a nationalist symbol she was glorified for “kicking out the English” and “denouncing so-called traitors”.

Ballot box symbol?

President Sarkozy’s victory in 2007 was largely owed to winning over voters who traditionally support the National Front, and the government’s recent promises to toughen immigration laws has sparked accusations that the incumbent is once more pandering to the Front’s electoral base.

To some observers Sarkozy’s overt effort to reclaim the image of Joan of Arc from the far-right seemed like a clumsy move, but not because his commemorative visit would come off as a song and dance to charm far-right voters. They say FN sympathisers, like most French voters, actually care little about Joan of Arc.

“Joan of Arc is not the motivating factor that pushes people to vote for the FN. Her image only motivates card-carrying FN members who are attached to the folklore of their own political family. Voters, even those on the right, don’t really care about Joan of Arc," Crepon said.

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