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Historians battle over Clovis, first French king

An event due to take place in five months, commemorating another event that may or not have taken place 1,500 years ago is causing a rumpus in academic, political and religious circles in France and reopening wounds thought to have been healed long ago.

At the centre of all the fuss are plans to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis, a warlord from the Merovingian tribe who, in the fifth century, became the first king of France.

There is no doubt that all the stops are being pulled out. On 22 September, the Pope is to celebrate the commemorative Mass at Rheims cathedral where Clovis was baptised, and where the baptistry is being given an expensive facelift. A state committee, headed by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, will oversee the celebrations; numerous conferences, television programmes and books are in the pipeline.

Which is where the problems start, for it is not clear that there is an anniversary to celebrate. A television discussion in France last week had leading historians engaging in a verbal brawl, with raised voices and some very unacademic language, over the traditional date of the baptism: 13 April 496.

The only consensus seemed to be that if Clovis was baptised and if the baptism took place at Rheims, it was not in the year 496 and certainly not in September. The year, apparently, depends on the year from which Clovis's reign dates, which may be two, three or more years later than the date accepted by 17th-century historians. These same historians are also accused of changing the season of his baptism from Christmas to Easter on the grounds that Easter was more appropriate.

So why will France celebrate the event on 22 September1996? The simplest explanation is that this is when the Pope's programme enabled him to come to France. But sticklers for the constitutional separation of church and state in France divine a more sinister reason: 22 September is Republic Day in France. They see the coincidence as a deliberate attempt to link the baptism of France's first king with the inauguration of the French state.

But it is the association of state leaders with the anniversary - with the formation of the Clovis committee and the likely attendance of President Chirac at the Rheims Mass - that has raised most hackles.

The separation of church and state, though enshrined in the constitution only in 1902, is taken for granted in France as one of the achievements of the 1789 Revolution. Since he came to office, however, Mr Chirac has caused eyebrows to be raised on this score.

The most notable blurring of the division between church and state was his decision to arrange a Requiem Mass at Notre Dame for his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, a very public agnostic. But Mr Chirac is also the first post-war president to have made a state visit to the Vatican; he took a personal interest in the election of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, into the Academie Francaise, and has been criticised for referring to France as the "faithful daughter of the church".

As the highly sensitive debate over the association of the Clovis anniversary with a Papal Mass and the foundation of the French state progressed, two further difficulties arose. The first was a public commemoration of the 13 April anniversary by a group of traditionalist Catholic clerics and the extreme-right National Front.

A ringing address from the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and a torch-lit procession in Paris in honour of France's first Christian king, led to accusations that the extreme right was trying to undo 1789 and co-opt Clovis as a national symbol, rather as it has successfully co-opted Joan of Arc.

The second difficulty was the discovery by an American archaeologist that the Rheims baptistry could not have been the site of Clovis's baptism, because it was not built at the time. Remains of a far more primitive baptistry were found beneath the crypt, but were in no condition to be restored.

Drowned by the hubbub of protest over aspects of the Clovis anniversary are murmurings about not letting the controversies get out of hand. Marking the baptism of Clovis, these voices argue, is just another way of saying that France is a very ancient nation and making the French feel a little happier. But with five months to go and historians going at it hammer and tongs, such sweet reason looks unlikely to prevail.