Eyebrows up in feigned sincerity, shoulders hunched against the damp cold, Nicolas Sarkozy glanced at a mutilated statuette of a medieval girl warrior missing one arm and ducked through the low door of a rundown little house in the remote village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle, population 155. After a quick look around the dwelling said to be Joan of Arc's birthplace in 1412 (no matter that it was actually built much later) the French president unveiled a commemorative plaque, met a handful of local dignitaries, and greeted a sparse crowd of shivering citizens. It was the first time a sitting president had visited the village since 1920, when the Catholic Church canonized Joan and she became France's patron saint.
If Sarkozy was on the hustings in this remote, little-visited corner of Lorraine some 200 miles east of Paris, it was because he is running for his political life as the first round of France's presidential election looms April 22. Lagging in the polls for months as the most unpopular president since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he is beating the bushes all over the country and working every angle. In Domrémy he was exploiting Joan of Arc to work the patriotism angle, a ploy to help counter the growing appeal of the populist National Front's Marine Le Pen. (Le Pen early on identified with Joan by symbolically naming one of her daughters Jehanne, the medieval version of her name.)
He also hoped to recuperate the right wing of his own UMP party, many of whose disappointed members are absconding to the Front. "There was a feeling in the last election in 2007 that Sarkozy was a new Bonaparte, a De Gaulle or even Joan of Arc who would save France from its problems," says Jean Garrigues, a historian at the University of Orleans. "That's why the disappointment among his followers is so great."
Thus Sarkozy's hurried January pilgrimage to launch the official commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the mystical peasant girl who symbolizes French nationalism and resistance to foreign interference—oblivious to the fact that this is the very opposite of the soulless European Union that he defends so ardently. In a frigid local gymnasium he pointedly invoked France's Christian roots, calling her the symbol of its unity and insisting that "Joan belongs to no party, to no faction, to no clan." She was, he said, "the incarnation of patriotism, which is the love of one's country without the hatred of others." It was a nice try by Sarkozy at tarring the Front with xenophobia and putting Joan on his side. But as a political symbol she is already taken by the National Front.
She's been its icon since the 1980s, when it began celebrating her every May Day as an antidote to the left's Labor Day braying. A life-size statue of Joan in full body armor stands guard at the entrance to the Front's headquarters. Its May Day rally is invariably at the foot of the splendid gilded equestrian statue of Joan near the Louvre—my favorite in this city of monuments—with her right arm thrusting high her banner and her determined face the picture of fierce resolve. And it was there the next day that the Front's founder and Marine's father, Jean-Marie, shot back at Sarkozy that Joan certainly did not belong to politicians that only spoke of her at election time, or "parties that gave over France to globalization, that want to dissolve it in a federal Europe, or that have permitted massive foreign immigration." Touché!
It's hardly surprising that Joan of Arc is a touchstone in a French election marked by voters' disoriented malaise due to unemployment, deindustrialization, undigested immigration, rising criminal violence, and a pervasive, confounding sense of lost identity. It's still another measure of the power of Joan's universal symbolism of gutsy valor and moral certitude. She has long been recruited for all manner of causes, and not only in France. At one time or another, seemingly everybody has wanted a piece of her for their own reasons.
After the French themselves neglected her for nearly half a millennium—the naughty Voltaire mocked her as an "unfortunate idiot"—19th century monarchist Catholics resuscitated Joan as a bulwark against godless republicanism. As her image gained momentum, the U.S. put Joan, garishly painted, on a World War I fund-raising poster. In the 1920s flappers adopted her bobbed hair as an early symbol of women's liberation. Later feminists in the U.S. and Canada—not France—claimed her, ignoring that historians note she had a girly side, requesting cloth for dresses in towns she campaigned through. During France's World War II occupation both the collaborationist Vichy regime and the anti-Nazi resistance co-opted her. Post-war, Latin American revolutionaries idolized Joan as one of the first to resist the powers that be, a sort of female, medieval Che.
Writers and filmmakers latched on to her and retold her story endlessly. Her unyielding dignity in standing up to her malicious inquisitors inspired writers from George Bernard Shaw to Bertolt Brecht and Jean Anouilh. Mark Twain thought his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was his best work, Huckleberry Finn notwithstanding. Jean Seberg and Ingrid Berman tried to incarnate her, with varying success, but of the 15 films about her, Carl Dreyer's silent 1928 movie, The Passion of Joan of Arc is still the gold standard. Today anyone can try his hand at being Joan; the Jeanne d'Arc PlayStation game has her fending off both attacking demons and the English army.
WILL SUMMONING THE INDOMITABLE spirit of the illiterate girl who changed the course of the Hundred Years War suffice to win Nicolas Sarkozy a second term? His record is actually not all that bad, even if not comparable to lifting the siege of Orleans or booting the Goddons (Joan's charming pronunciation of the common English oath) out of France. He did launch major reforms of pensions and higher education. He reacted energetically to the financial crisis that nearly destroyed the euro. He managed to look valorous in supporting the Libyan uprising with military force. If voters were policy wonks, he could squeak through.
Especially since his chief rival and frontrunner in the polls, the Socialist Party's François Hollande, could never be confused with Joan of Arc. A bland party apparatchik, he has never run a company, held a national government post, or done anything else anyone can remember. Billing himself as Monsieur Normal in contrast to the twitchy, impetuous, unpredictable Sarkozy, Hollande looks and sounds on the podium like a facsimile François Mitterrand, whose intonations and mannerisms he imitates. His Marxist-style declaration that the world of finance is his "main foe," and his promise to raise the tax rate to 75 percent on incomes of more than $1.3 million a year has many wealthy French—and most of the country's overpaid professional soccer players—ready to pack their bags and join others already in Switzerland and Belgium.
Sarkozy's problem is that most don't vote on policy, but gut feeling. And the French find him pushy, transparently ambitious and calculating, and, worst in this style-conscious land, vulgar. This is compounded by a hyperactive, media-grabbing manner that has left him over-exposed, a complaint known as Sarko fatigue. "A majority of the French simply cannot stand the idea of having him on their TV screens for another five years," says Dominique Moisi, a senior advisor at the French Institute for International Relations. "It will be extremely difficult for him to prevent the upcoming election from becoming an emotional and negative referendum on his persona."
To be sure, a minority will favor Marine Le Pen. But she is unlikely to overcome the third-party handicap of limited resources and the two mutually supportive mainline parties that collude to crowd her out. Once again, a flawed political system has produced flawed, unappealing candidates. As this petty, unsatisfying election campaign grinds to a close, many French, longing for a charismatic leader they can believe in, likely feel the best candidate would be a spunky peasant girl speaking to them with resolute conviction.