France marked the 600th anniversary of the birth of its favorite saint, medieval martyr Joan of Arc, as politicians fought each other to take up her battle standard.
With just four months to go before what promises to be a tight election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to use the celebrations to seize the patriotic heroine’s memory back from the far right.
However, Sarkozy’s rival Marine Le Pen, standard bearer of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, is determined to retain its association with a figure it celebrates every year with a Mayday parade.
“She surely does not belong to parties who never speak of her or only speak of her during election campaigns,” Jean-Marie Le Pen said on Saturday in a speech to a crowd of about 150 supporters gathered under a Joan of Arc statue in Paris.
Turning to the themes that have seen his daughter rise to third place in pre-election opinion polls, he said the Maid of Orleans would not have supported the EU, globalism or mass immigration.
The day before, Joan’s presumed birthday, Sarkozy had taken his undeclared re-election campaign to her birthplace in Domremy-la-Pucelle, and made his own attempt to recruit her to his flagging forces mounting their defense of the Elysee.
“Joan doesn’t belong to any party, any faction, any clan,” he said, paying tribute to the teenage girl who experienced religious visions and went on to fight the English before being burned at the stake for heresy by the Catholic Church. “May we continue to think of her as the symbol of our unity and not leave her in the hands of those who would use her to divide. To divide in the name of Joan of Arc is to betray Joan of Arc’s memory.”
He denied the charge from his left as well as the far right of hijacking a national celebration for electoral gain.
“It’s the 600th anniversary, it doesn’t happen every day. What would they have said if I hadn’t come?” he asked.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd that braved persistent winter drizzle to attend the Le Pen ceremony in Paris were unimpressed by Sarkozy’s tribute.
“Him? He doesn’t like the French,” said Charlotte Ploe, a middle-aged government worker, originally from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s native Brittany, arguing that if the 15th century martyr returned today, she would vote National Front.
“He just loves himself. He loves himself, his wallet and his public image,” said Jeremy Vallat, a 20-year-old entrepreneur who made a nine-hour round trip by road from St Etienne in central France to attend the ceremony.
Sarkozy owed much of his former electoral success to his ability to win over concerned working class voters with tough talk on crime and immigration, but after five years in office, he is losing ground.
Polls consistently show him winning less than 30 percent on April 22 in the first round of the presidential election, with Marine Le Pen and center-right veteran Francois Bayrou close behind and gaining on him.