Chirac wrests Joan of Arc from Le Pen

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President Jacques Chirac moved yesterday to reclaim Joan of Arc as a mainstream French national heroine after years in which her image has been monopolised by the extreme right National Front.

During an unscheduled trip to Orleans, Mr Chirac presided over celebrations to mark the 567th anniversary of the city's liberation from the English in 1429. He had earlier led France's national commemoration of VE day in Paris.

Speaking at the Orleans ceremony, in words pointedly addressed to the National Front and its sympathisers, Mr Chirac said that Joan of Arc was "remote from all contempt and hatred" and "belonged to all the French". She was, he said, "opposed to all intolerant, negative and violent language of the sort that people sometimes venture to use in her name".

"Her France was a France with ambition, proud of its identity and its history, but also generous... Her values were those of justice, love, freedom and peace... she belonged to all the French and to all France."

Standing beside the socialist mayor of Orleans and former minister, Jean- Pierre Sueur, Mr Chirac said the Maid of Orleans "exhorts us to unite... and overcome our quarrels, divisions and selfishness".

Mr Chirac's decision to take the battle to the National Front reflects in part his long- standing personal crusade against the extreme right.

However, it also reflects a new strategy by the Gaullist party to present itself as the party of reasoned patriotism as opposed to the front's extreme nationalism.

Mainstream politicians of left and right are concerned to win back ground from the National Front before the legislative elections of 1998. They fear that the front could improve on its record 15 per cent share of the vote in last year's presidential election and even hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.