Sarkozy tells far right Joan of Arc 'belongs to no party'
French President Nicolas Sarkozy marked 600 years since Joan of Arc's birth on Friday, saying the patron saint "belonged to no party" as he battles to reclaim her image from the far right.
"As head of state, I had a duty to pay today, in the land of her birth, this solemn homage that France pays to those to whom it owes its freedom and greatness," Sarkozy said in a speech at Vaucouleurs in eastern France.
Joan of Arc passed through Vaucouleurs in 1429 on her way to the French royal court to lobby the monarch to join the fight against the English and the Burgundians during the Hundred Years War.
Sarkozy also visited Joan of Arc's birthplace at Domremy, on his undeclared campaign for a second mandate in April's presidential election in which the far-right National Front (FN) is expected to mount a strong challenge.
Opinion polls give FN leader Marine Le Pen as much as 20 percent of the vote in the first round, with Sarkozy also keen to ingratiate himself with FN voters in the event that he, and not she, makes it through to the second round of the vote.
"Joan doesn't belong to any party, any faction, any clan," Sarkozy said, in a clear swipe at Le Pen who will on Saturday pay her own homage to the 15th-century Catholic martyr at an FN rally in Paris.
"May we continue to think of her (Joan) 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 said.
Since the 1980s, the FN has sought to appropriate Joan of Arc, who has broad appeal, partly for the perception that she "booted out" medieval English "immigrants". The party organises a parade in her honour every May 1.
French Catholics see in Joan a saint, nationalists see her as a royalist warrior who kicked out the English, while Socialists can hail her humble origins, although she was the daughter of a landowner.
Even France's Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II used her as a symbol of the then ongoing fight against the English.
And, like accusations that Sarkozy is pandering to far-right voters, the battle over Joan of Arc is also not new.
"Joan is France," Sarkozy said during the 2007 presidential election. "How could we have let the extreme right confiscate Joan of Arc for so long?"
Asked about Sarkozy's homage to Joan, Le Pen on Thursday said the president would have trouble catching up with her.
"He should know that I have stronger convictions, that I have a purer heart and that I have longer legs, and as a result he'll have a lot of trouble, I think, catching up with me," Le Pen said.
Socialist Party number two Harlem Desir said that Sarkozy and Le Pen were "without a doubt the least well placed" to pay homage to Joan of Arc as they "spend their time dividing the French."
© 2012 AFP