French politicians argue over who 'owns' Joan of Arc

In an election year Joan of Arc represents 600-year-old values that fit political messages on both sides of the aisle.

By , Staff writer

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

France is celebrating 600 years of its most famous daughter, Joan of Arc. A young peasant girl hearing heavenly voices, fierce yet compassionate and rising as a military leader to end a foreign siege, Joan of Arc still retains a hold on the French imagination.

Starting as a nobody, she broke nearly every 15th-century gender barrier. In 2012 she’s a Christian heroine in a secular state: For the right, a holy warrior of the sacred soil; on the left, a brave iconoclast fighting corrupt elites.

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Now in Orléans, where in 1429 she instructed French generals how to kick out the British in nine days, there’s a year of conferences, films, art, music, and parades.

But a fight is brewing. In France, culture is politics, and this is an election year. Nationalists have long claimed Joan as theirs. She’s an icon for the far-right National Front, run by Marine Le Pen.

So on Joan’s official birthday, Jan. 6, President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Joan’s birthplace. “Joan belongs to no party, to no faction, to no clan,” Mr. Sarkozy said. Ms. Le Pen retorted that Sarkozy had abandoned Joan’s values, as well as French national sovereignty, seen in the “Islamization” of France.

So it goes. What remains outside politics for the French is a life that got the attention of Shakespeare and Mark Twain alike.

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