2012 marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, which has triggered an intense bout of political posturing as French politicians maneuver to claim her mantle.
Last week President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Domremy-la-Pucelle, the village said to have been her birthplace. He said “Joan doesn’t belong to any party, any faction, any clan. May we continue to think of her as the symbol of our unity and not leave her in the hands of those who would use her to divide.” It is clear who he has in mind – National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whose strong public support could damage Sarkozy’s chances in the upcoming presidential election in April. Every May 1st the National Front holds a parade in honor of Joan who, as Le Pen put it, kicked out 15th century English ‘immigrants.’
Joan was burnt at the stake by the English in 1431, at the age of 19, for her role in rallying resistance to their invading army at the tail end of the 100 Years War. The religious court could not prove that she was talking to the Devil so they got her on a technicality – cross-dressing as a man. (A bit like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion.) Joan became an important but deeply contested symbol of religious purity and national pride. As left and right struggled to define French national identity in the wake of the Revolution, Joan became for both sides a symbol of French unity and resistance to foreign influence. Canonized in 1920, she always seemed a more suitable symbol for the Catholic Right, and the Joan cult was vigorously promoted by the Vichy government during WW2. In the last 30 years or so, she has been appropriated by the far right.
The Guardian wrote that “Joan of Arc has inspired an industry with more than 20,000 books published in France, around 50 films and, recently, video games.”
Joan is a somewhat unusual figure to have as a national hero. Usually they are leaders – and men. The closest equivalent in Britain or American history would I guess be Robin Hood (like Joan a marginal figure who challenged the existing authorities) or Nathan Hale – executed in 1776 by the English, like Joan, at the age of 21, but not before he said “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Britain has female heroes in its own pantheon – also resisting foreign invasion, from Queen Boudica who battled the Romans, to Elizabeth I who battled the Spanish, to Margaret Thatcher who battled the Argentinians.
The fact that Joan is a woman reminds us that nationalism is a deeply gendered concept. Even if national heroes are usually male, all national narratives draw on women as symbols of nationhood. Often the figure is that of a mother, since the mother gives birth to future sons of the nation, teaches them their mother tongue, and sends them off to war. (Think Mother Russia, or Mother India.) But the virgin maiden is also a powerful image: a future mother, also an object of protection, affection and lust for contemporary men. Marianne was chosen as a symbol of the new French republic in 1792, and this new tradition continued with Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”(1830). It was common to portray the American Republic as a maiden, as in John Garst’s “Manifest Destiny” (1845) – not to forget the Statue of Liberty, of course.
In contemporary France, it is not a coincidence that the most intense battle for French identity has revolved around the right of Moslem women to wear the headscarf (hijab) in school or full-face burqa in public places. Moslem men it seems can wear whatever headgear or facial hair that they like. This confirms that the most emotionally resonant representation of the nation is the female form.