When Emmanuel Macron was poised to launch his bid for the French presidency back in 2016, it was in Orleans and with the help of its medieval heroine Joan of Arc that he cannily made what we now recognise as an early campaign speech.
Like an arrow finding its mark, Joan had overthrown the old system, fought injustice and the English, and brought together a “France that was torn apart, cut in two and shaken by an endless war”, the future president said at the annual festival for the teenage saint.
At the time, Macron was still finance minister in the Socialist government, but the unifying, patriotic and above all victorious campaign of the Maid of Orleans to raise the English siege was irresistible for a politician who wanted to be “neither right nor left” and to shatter the old politics of France.
“It was an important symbolic gesture,” says Valérie Toureille, biographer of Joan.
Ahead of the presidential election in April, Macron, who is set to seek re-election, and his political rivals are once more criss-crossing the country to court voters in the “real France” of villages, towns and industrial estates outside the Paris ring road.
Orleans is again a good place to start to understand the concerns of contemporary France. Once a great city dominating the River Loire, Orleans is neither north nor south, neither exceptionally poor nor unusually prosperous.
Serge Grouard, mayor for 15 of the past 20 years, is scathing about Macron’s record in office. A member of the conservative Les Républicains party that has picked Valérie Pécresse to beat Macron and become the first woman head of state, Grouard accuses the president of dashing the hopes of the French that he would transform and modernise the country.
“He was like a surfer on a huge, magnificent wave — and he helped to make this wave — but he fell in the middle of it,” says Grouard. France, adds the mayor, remains “a little Soviet Union” throttled by regulation and hurt by immigration.
The streets of Orleans show that these problems used by the right and far right to cudgel Macron, the liberal internationalist, are not entirely imaginary: homeless people live on the pavement, African migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected say they have no intention of leaving, and the needy queue for food at the local Restos du Coeur (“canteens of the heart” established in the 1980s by the comedian Coluche).
Joan of Arc’s very Frenchness is one reason why nationalist politicians on the French right continue to lay claim to her image 600 years after she was burnt at the stake for turning the tide against the English in the Hundred Years War.
When Pécresse wanted to present herself in a primary contest as a future commander-in-chief she tweeted: “Joan of Arc represents for me the image of France that stands tall, that resists the invader . . . We are not condemned to decline and chaos. #Elysée 2022”.
Eric Zemmour, the anti-immigration television polemicist who emerged from rightwing talk shows to mount his own bid for the presidency, declared himself a candidate in a video of nostalgic longing for France’s past, for “the land of Joan of Arc and of Louis XIV, the land of Bonaparte and General de Gaulle, the land of knights and noblewomen”.
Curiously, the original French far-right party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, now run as the Rassemblement National by his less antagonistic daughter Marine, has slightly cooled its ardour for St Joan since the days when Le Pen père gathered thousands for an annual homage at her gilded equestrian statue in Paris.
But she still has something for every politician — whether royalists or supporters of the republican left who rehabilitated her in the 19th century as a “daughter of the people,” persecuted in her short lifetime by the Catholic church.
Toureille says Joan was adopted not just by the French but also by American feminists, British suffragettes and now by LGBTQ activists because she wore men’s armour and challenged gender stereotypes.
In France, her star shows no sign of waning. Joan of Arc’s feats in the Middle Ages crystallised the idea of the French nation and “in the political campaign, history comes back into all the debates”, says Toureille. “She’s still a very strong political symbol today.”