Joan of Arc still firing up the French 600 years on

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

SHE DIED six centuries ago, lived for just 19 years and has a life story shrouded by accreted layers of myth and mystery, but Joan of Arc’s hold on the French imagination doesn’t seem to slacken.

Yesterday, on the 600th anniversary of her birth, President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the saint’s birthplace in the eastern town of Domrémy and hailed her as a symbol of national unity and resistance.

The Catholic martyr, credited with driving the English out of the city of Orléans in 1429, during the Hundred Years War, and later elevated to the role of national heroine, is the only medieval figure known to all Frenchmen.

She embodies the nation, standing for both Catholic France and the secular republic, and has been claimed at different times by the left and the right as their own. Hers is one of the most popular street names in the country; her representation looks down from village squares and churches and her name is immortalised in thousands of monuments, paintings, films and toys.

Fights over Joan of Arc’s legacy are nothing new, but the 600th anniversary was as much about one of contemporary France’s most bitter political rivalries as it was about history.

Speaking in Domrémy – an obligatory pilgrimage stop for modern presidents – Mr Sarkozy described Joan as the embodiment of French unity, an ecumenical presence who stood alongside the writer Victor Hugo, the statesman Charles de Gaulle and the resistance hero Jean Moulin in the national pantheon. “Joan is part of our national identity. She forged it. She strengthened it,” the president said. He reproached those who “would use her to divide”, adding: “Joan does not belong to any political party or clan.”

His target was unspoken but understood. In recent years, the far-right National Front has adopted “the maid of Orléans” as its symbol. Her statue stands outside the party’s headquarters in Paris and her life is celebrated in an annual event organised by its supporters. Party leader Marine Le Pen even named her daughter after her.

Mr Sarkozy referred to Joan of Arc in his 2007 election campaign – “Joan is France”, he said – but unlike many of his predecessors, he has not been a regular visitor to Domrémy. With an election in four months, however, his UMP party is concerned about the rise in support for the National Front (FN). Mr Sarkozy managed to win over many “soft” FN voters in 2007, but recent polls suggest the far-right party is again eating into his support and say its candidate, Ms Le Pen, could win up to 20 per cent of the first-round vote. Some even showed the incumbent could be knocked out by Ms Le Pen in round one.

Mr Sarkozy visited the house where Joan of Arc was born on January 6th, 1412, and then travelled to Vaucouleurs, where she began her mission to lead the Charles VII to victory. “It’s the 600th anniversary – this doesn’t happen every day,” he told journalists. “What would people say if I hadn’t come?” The National Front plans to hold its own Joan of Arc ceremony in Paris today. “I see that Nicolas Sarkozy is running after me,” Ms Le Pen taunted him.

It is not the first time Joan of Arc has been adopted for political purposes. Before becoming a far-right symbol, she was celebrated at different times by communists, femininsts, revolutionaries and monarchists.

The Socialist Party, whose candidate François Hollande is leading in the polls, dismissed Mr Sarkozy’s speech as a stunt, but was careful not to disparage Joan.

Harlem Désir, a senior party figure, said Mr Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen were “the worst-placed” people to celebrate the saint, as “they spend their time dividing the French people and playing on their fears”.