Sarkozy bids to enlist Joan of Arc
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has bit back at far-right nationalists who claim heroine Joan of Arc as a symbol of their own.
He made a pilgrimage to Joan of Arc's birthplace in eastern France for the 600th anniversary of her birth and delivered a lofty speech that he hopes will improve his tarnished image in many French minds.
With presidential elections this spring, the conservative Sarkozy's speech amounted to a political pre-emptive strike against the extreme-right National Front party that has sought to co-opt Joan of Arc as its patron saint.
"Joan belongs to no party, no faction, no clan," Sarkozy said in the town of Vaucouleurs, after visiting the nearby village of Domremy-La-Pucelle where she was born.
"Joan is what France has singularly, and most universally."
The teenage Joan of Arc led the French to several victories over the English during the Hundred Years War. She was caught, tried for heresy and witchcraft, and burned at the stake in 1431 for her convictions.
She had claimed she heard voices from a trio of saints telling her to deliver France from the English. The Vatican canonised her in 1920 and Pope Benedict XVI last year hailed her as a model for public officials.
The anniversary of Joan's birth on January 6, 1412, could not have come at a better time for Sarkozy: Though his poll numbers have crept up in recent weeks, they remain low and he still trails Socialist Party nominee Francois Hollande in the race to the two-round election in April and May.
Many political pundits partly credit Sarkozy's presidential election victory in 2007 to his success in siphoning off support from the National Front by building a hard-as-nails image while he was interior minister for nearly four years.
With a cool and relaxed delivery of the 19-minute speech, Sarkozy attempted to pull the symbolism of Joan of Arc toward the political centre.
"May we continue ... to think of her as the symbol of our unity, and not leave her in the hands of those who would like to use her to divide," he said. "Dividing in the name of Joan of Arc is to betray Joan of Arc's memory."
He depicted Joan not just as a defender of France, but as an international ideal of the fight for freedom and a purveyor of women's rights - centuries before the feminist movement.
While noting the English "enemy" of yesteryear that Joan of Arc had battled, Sarkozy also insisted that she represented "love of one's country without hatred of others".
The National Front - led by another woman, Marine Le Pen - was planning its own commemorations of Joan of Arc in Paris on Saturday.