Joan Of Arc's Star Power In Demand In France

In these uncertain economic times, French politicians are desperate for a dash of patriotism, heroism and glory. All are embodied in Joan of Arc, who was born 600 years ago this year. Long a symbol of the far right, President Nicolas Sarkozy muscled in on the birthday commemorations, hoping a bit of Joan's star power will rub off on him.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, so we're tracking TV votes in China, the presidential primary in New Hampshire - won by Mitt Romney - and the presidential election in France, where a new star has emerged: Joan of Arc. This year is the 600th anniversary of her birth, and as the country celebrates, politicians are hoping some of St. Joan's divine powers will rub off. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Four months ahead of the presidential election, and with his poll numbers severely lagging, President Nicolas Sarkozy went to the French heartland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Television networks showed him walking through the streets of the village of Domremy La Pucelle and visiting the house where Joan of Arc was born in 1412. An uneducated peasant girl, as legend has it, she followed the voices of angels and commanded an army to defeat the English in a major battle during the 100 Years War.

With the euro in crisis and the French economy in the dumps, commentator Andre Bercoff says Sarkozy is looking for inspiration in history.

ANDRE BERCOFF: You know, Joan of Arc, she is a young patriot, young virgin who drove the English out of France, symbol of courage, fighting, valiant, and all this.

BEARDSLEY: Joan was eventually captured by the English, tried for witchcraft and heresy, and burned at the stake. Centuries later, she was canonized. French soldiers prayed to her in the trenches of World War I, and during the Second World War, both the Resistance and the Vichy regime held her up as a symbol.

By visiting her birthplace last weekend, Sarkozy was trying to wrest her from the clutches of today's far right, which has claimed Joan as their icon for years.

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PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Joan doesn't belong to any party, faction or clan. Joan belongs to France, said Sarkozy. She is the universal, eternal France.

Sarkozy wanted to preempt the extreme right's celebration of Joan the next day. Every year, members of the National Front gather in central Paris to rally around a golden statue of Joan of Arc in full-body armor, mounted on her horse.

MARINE LE PEN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, said Sarkozy's policies had let to a loss of sovereignty and the Islamization of France. Le Pen has a good chance of hacking into Sarkozy's conservative base this year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in French)

BEARDSLEY: The crowd here loves her, and they think that only she, like Joan of Arc, can protect them from modern day invaders: immigrants.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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