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France's bittersweet birthday party for Joan of Arc

For many French, any dreams of another savior have long since come and gone.

January 07, 2012|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Pauline Finet, 17, plays Joan of Arc at the cathedral in Orleans.
Pauline Finet, 17, plays Joan of Arc at the cathedral in Orleans. (Alain Jocard, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Orleans, France —  

Escorted by knights on horseback, a horde of former Joans of Arc paraded this year's Joan through the darkened streets of a city liberated by their namesake nearly six centuries ago. They were headed to Sainte-Croix Cathedral, where, like a martial Rose Queen, she was handed her sword.

As the cathedral filled Friday night to celebrate the 600th birthday of a teenage girl who claimed to hear the voice of God, medieval maidens wearing flowing headdresses giggled on cellphones, bagpipe players from Nantes huddled in a corner and the knights in shining armor wandered through the crowd.

It all felt a bit like a dream — and maybe that was the point.

PHOTOS: Joan of Arc's 600th birthday

"With all the problems our society has today, this allows us to forget a little and come together despite everything," said Pierre Dorenlot, 51, watching the parade on the sidelines in Orleans, a city that Jeanne d'Arc, as she is known here, is credited with saving from British invaders in 1429 before being burned at the stake two years later.

But while her 600th birthday was a chance for people here to relive and commemorate their past — and honor the woman chosen as Joan in an annual contest — it also coincides with a presidential election this spring. And for many here, any real dreams of another national savior have long come and gone.

Amid rising unemployment, new austerity measures, forecasts of recession and France's role as second fiddle to Germany's influence over the continent, Friday night's festivities were mere background noise to very real daily trials.

"With or without this celebration, the real problems will still be there — economic and social problems," said Juliette Willems, 23, a native of Orleans who is studying to become a teacher.

As for finding a leader to help get the country back on its feet, Willems says she has no illusions.

"We know it'll never happen to us. It's nice to celebrate Joan of Arc, but it will never happen again."

"France continues to live out its grandeur through commemorations, because that grandeur has disappeared," said Jean Garrigues, a historian at the University of Orleans who specializes in the use of heroic icons in French political history.

"This is a society that sees itself as a failure," he said, adding, "The reality of France's position in the world is so far removed from this French legend.... Today we're in an industrialized society that is trying to survive a crisis."

Nostalgia for a perceived loss of national glory has led some political groups, especially on the extreme right, to adopt the symbol of Joan of Arc as an emblem of nationalism hostile to foreigners. The far-right National Front party plans to celebrate Joan's birthday Saturday in Paris.

The young woman who was burned alive for heresy at age 19 — whether viewed as cult figure, feminist, witch, patriot, saint or girl who decided to change her life and France — has long been invoked by politicians across the political spectrum.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who traveled to Joan's birthplace in eastern France on Friday, cited her legacy as early as his presidential campaign in 2007 (as did his Socialist opponent, Segolene Royal). He argued even then that it was unfair that Joan of Arc be so strongly associated with the National Front.

It seemed to work in his favor at the time, but now he faces an epic battle if, as expected, he runs for reelection.

"There was a feeling that Sarkozy was a savior, a new Bonaparte, a De Gaulle or new Joan of Arc, who would solve the problems of the French," Garrigues said. "That's why the deception is all the higher. The hopes were high, so the deception is high. The rejection of Sarkozy is a measure of the enthusiasm for him — a sort of Joan of Arc who didn't keep his promises."

Even Sarkozy has been forced to acknowledge that after his nearly five years in office, the country is worse off economically. However, arguing in his New Year's address that he was the leader best equipped to protect the French from another year of potential sacrifices, he shied away from taking blame, calling the austerity measures, unemployment and recession a product of a "planetary" economic crisis.

Despite his unpopularity, Sarkozy is seen by many conservative voters as their only option. But that doesn't mean they don't long for another time, and another kind of leader.

Orleans Mayor Serge Grouard is a member of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement. Asked if he longed for a hero like Joan of Arc today, he breathed deeply.

"There is nostalgia for a France that is proud of itself, and brings hope, with a political power that embodies a France that is too often steeped in too much mediocrity," he said. "Sarkozy was elected because he had that breath of air, that dynamism. It is now up to him to find it again."

Nostalgia aside, not all French feel a strong connection to Joan of Arc, and invoking her memory isn't likely to pull a majority of heartstrings.

"On a pilgrimage chez Joan of Arc," the left-leaning satirical weekly Canard Enchaine wrote on its front page this week. "Sarkozy should watch out; she, too, ended up getting burned."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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