Sarkozy and far right rivals celebrate Joan of Arc
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front will stage rival public celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the birth of French heroine Joan of Arc this weekend.
The 15th century Catholic martyr, a teenage peasant who led the French army against the English after experiencing religious visions and was later burned at the stake, has in recent years become a symbol of the populist right.
But centre-right leader Sarkozy, who will 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 reputed 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, on Saturday, the National Front -- including 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.
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 stages a parade in her honour every May 1.
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.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy facing a strong challenge from Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential election, and he is reportedly concerned that she could outflank him on the right and knock him out of the race.
© 2012 AFP