Happy 600th Birthday, Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc looks down on far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen at a rally last spring in Paris. France's presidential candidates are scrambling to claim St. Joan's blessing for their campaigns on her 600th birthday.


Franck Prevel

What a useful coincidence. France is in the midst of a presidential election season (first round of voting is in April) and Joan of Arc turns 600 today.

There is no one like her in French history as Le Monde notes, "The name Joan of Arc is one of the six most common street names in France. The Maid of Orleans is the only medieval figure known by all French people."

What better way to get headlines and score points with the voters for prospective candidates than to honor this unique symbol of France?

Nicolas Sarkozy is in the eastern part of the country today at Joan's alleged birthplace, Domremy la Pucelle, in the Vosges mountains - everything about her origins including her actual birthday is alleged or reputed, records don't go back that far - and will wrap himself in her mantle as the savior of France.

Tomorrow, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front will lead a rally in Paris. The NF has a statue of Joan, sword at the ready, at its party headquarters.

But it was not ever thus. For a couple of centuries, from the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV, through the French Revolution, Joan of Arc, was not an important symbol of France. It wasn't until the 19th century that she assumed her current status of national icon (she wasn't canonized as a saint until 1920). Joan is a remarkably flexible icon at that. Any group can identify the maid as their heroine.

An article in Liberation notes that during World War II both the Vichy government and the French Resistance thought that Joan represented them, as do other groups usually at each other's throats in French society: Catholics and secularists, republicans and monarchists.

Interestingly, the other main candidate, for the presidency, the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande, is spending this weekend marking the anniversary of Francois Mitterand's death, according to France Inter. The late president of France is a hero to his party, but it is hard to imagine that 600 years from now he will be an object of national veneration in quite the same way as the Maid of Orleans.