Page from Sally Feldman's 'Saint for all seasons', New Humanist May/June 2012It’s certainly a remarkable story. Six hundred years ago, a baby girl was born to a modest farming family in the village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle in northeastern France. When she was still a very young girl she began to hear the voices of saints and angels telling her that it was God’s wish that she save France from its enemies. God certainly seemed to have picked the right girl. As everyone knows, this devout, illiterate peasant girl went on to lead the French army to a succession of victories against the English. But then, when she was no more than 19 years old, she was captured by the English, tried for heresy and burned at the stake.

It would be difficult to invent such a perfect national hero. Joan of Arc not only had the advantage of existence over England’s largely mythical St George, but could also claim to have routed some rather better foes than a solitary dragon and to have enjoyed a properly tragic end. No wonder, then, that her story has been endlessly told and retold, that her personality has been analysed in countless dramatisations, works of art and biographies. In 1979 a Joan exhibition at the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen displayed over five hundred images of the miraculous peasant girl and as long ago as 1894 one cataloguer, Emile Huet, listed over 400 plays and musical works about her life and times.

“Joan has . . . become everything to everyone,” writes Larissa Juliet Taylor in The Virgin Warrior. “A Catholic, a proto-Protestant, a right- or left-wing partisan, anti-Semitic, nationalist, anti-colonialist, and even the face on cheese, chocolates, baked beans, and cosmetics.” Everyone, it seems, can find some use for her. As Taylor claims, “Joan is a ‘work of art’, a ‘representation’, and most of all ‘a mirror for those who marvel at her.’”

Some of the mirrors provide dramatically different reflections. In Henry VI Part One Shakespeare turned her into a villain, while Schiller, in The Maid of Orleans, made her a romantic heroine. Brecht, perhaps predictably, transposed her story to modern-day Chicago, where Joan strides the boards as a labour leader. In L’Alouette (The Lark) Jean Anouilh co-opted her as a victim of McCarthyism while Philip José Farmer, in The Image of the Beast, threw caution to the winds and portrayed her as an alien sexual predator. Scores of leading actors have added their own representations to the gallery. Ingrid Bergman went for the saintliness, Jean Seberg played her as a tragic victim, while Janet Suzman injected feminist defiance into the role.

Even the notoriously sardonic Mark Twain fell under her spell. In Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, he portrays Joan as a “wonderful child” with a “dear and bonny face”, whose trial was deliberately rigged by the English in order to find her guilty.

That was altogether too much for George Bernard Shaw, who, in the preface to Saint Joan, scornfully accuses Twain of being “infatuated” with her. She was no mere “wonderful child” – she was, for Shaw, a visionary genius, someone to stand alongside Florence Nightingale, “who also combined a very simple iconography of religious belief with a mind so exceptionally powerful that it kept her in continual trouble with the medical and military panjandrums of her time.”

Yet Joan may have owed her triumph to rather more than her powerful personality. In a new book, The Maid and the Queen, Nancy Goldstone argues that she would never have achieved anything like her massive victories had it not been for the patronage of a formidable royal force: Queen Yolande of Aragon. At the time, France was not only failing in the Hundred Years’ War with England, but was also riven with internal strife. Powerful factions opposed the Dauphin Charles, Yolande’s son-in-law, and tried to prevent him from being crowned. Aware that the weak and indecisive Charles was in need of some radical transformation to bolster his campaign to become king, Yolande seized upon the young Joan, seeing her potential as a unifying, galvanising figure.

It was Yolande’s support, and her briefing of the fanatical but ignorant country girl, that gave Joan access to Charles’s court and his confidence. And that influence, argues Goldstone, was what persuaded Charles to grant Joan an army and sanction her to lead the relief of besieged Orleans. All of which achieved Yolande’s main goal: the crowning of Charles VII as King.

But probably no historian or dramatist or portraitist has found Joan quite such a useful ally as the contemporary army of French politicians. Whereas it was once Saint Michael and Saint Catherine who called France to action, it is now the very mortal figures contesting this spring’s presidential election.

Earlier this year, Nicolas Sarkozy made a very public pilgrimage to her birthplace. Not content with that trip he then went on to nearby Vaucouleurs, a significant landmark in Joan’s journey to battle, and told his listeners that “Joan is the incarnation of patriotism, the love of one’s country without the hatred of others.”

This was something of an about-turn for the debonair leader. For, traditionally, it has been those on the far right who have claimed Joan as a symbol of national identity. Indeed, they celebrate her birth every 1 May as that of a patriotic heroine who repelled hostile cross-Channel invaders. So it was hardly a coincidence that the very day after Sarkozy’s pilgrimage, the Front National election army led by Marine Le Pen and her father, party founder Jean-Marie, staged a rally in central Paris at the base of a statue of the saint. The populist anti-immigration Le Pen dismissed her opponent’s homage to Joan of Arc as a crude bid to steal votes. “We are the inspiration for the presidential election’s key issues,” she said: “Immigration, insecurity, protectionism and now, great historical figures.”Saint Joan poster
The Saul Bass-designed poster for the 1957 film Saint Joan

And this criticism is difficult to duck. For while Sarkozy is attempting to present his reappropriation of the Maid of Orleans as a gesture of secular patriotism, the move is clearly intended to appeal to right-wing voters. And the choice of Joan carries a symbolism that goes beyond mere nationalism. To summon a white, patriotic and, above all, Catholic saint as the embodiment of France calls into question Sarkozy’s own commitment to some of the key causes he has traditionally espoused: secularism, tolerance and unity.

When last year his party introduced the law banning the wearing of the burqa in public places, there was considerable debate about its real intentions. Some argued that the ban would be a blow for feminism, others that it was quite the opposite, interfering with women’s rights to wear what they choose. Was it, as the government claimed, an act intended to reinforce the country’s proud secularist tradition? Or was it a naked attempt to assert French values against its Muslim communities?

That certainly seems to be the case, since it’s a strategy that Sarkozy has been reinforcing in the run-up to the election. Last month he announced stricter controls on immigration, and at the same time passed a law requiring more explicit labelling of halal food – presumably to protect French purists from heathen habits.

These measures mirror the tactics of the Front National, whose own manifesto goes even further, proposing the banning of public Muslim prayers. Marine Le Pen herself has complained about a “dictatorship of minorities” obliterating French identity.

And last month’s events in Toulouse, when an Islamic fanatic murdered three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi, have only have served to support the nationalistic rhetoric of both leaders. While Le Pen has openly claimed that the killings vindicated her attacks on Muslims, Sarkozy chose merely to condemn them as “morally unforgivable”. But it’s worth noting that since the killer’s identity was revealed, Sarkozy has overtaken the Socialist candidate François Hollande in the polls.

Before that, the Socialists had been performing surprisingly well, even though the party has consistently distanced itself from the anti-Islam tactics of the right. His views may be at odds with the anti-immigration mood that is permeating this election, but Hollande appeals to another, equally powerful French preoccupation: the economy. With his radical programme of wealth redistribution and his condemnation of high finance, he has even been hailed as a modern day – you guessed it – Joan of Arc.

As a left-wing socialist, Hollande still credibly presents himself as the champion of the people. At a time when France has just lost its AAA credit rating, Hollande’s anti-capitalist stance seems to be striking a chord with disillusioned French voters. He may not hear voices – or consort with angels. But he is seen as a modern-day visionary with a populist agenda. So it’s not surprising that he even considered putting Joan on his campaign posters.

And there’s another affinity he has with her, too. He is a notorious and vitriolic critic of the City of London and indeed all things British. Like Joan, he has declared war on Britain. And this, too, seems to chime with the current high-level anxieties over the fate of the Eurozone.
Sarkozy may have established a fragile entente cordiale with David Cameron in the past month or so. But that hasn’t really glossed over the taunts and hostilities that preceded them. Remember that Brussels summit when he ordered David Cameron to shut up, and refused to shake his hand?

Franco-British hostilities may not have been the main reason why so many candidates have adopted Joan of Arc as a running mate in the election. But they are certainly a factor, according to Ecology and Green candidate Eva Joly. She said it was bizarre for anyone to “find inspiration in Joan of Arc” in the middle of European crisis. She was an “ultra nationalist” symbol, Joly pointed out. The mediaeval woman who “booted the English out of France” was “not the symbol we look for today”.

Meanwhile, though, it’s amusing to see how Joan’s image is being fought over and manipulated for political gain, just as it was when she was alive. And it’s just as salutary to reflect that the arguments over what is considered permissible dress for women date back to Joan, too. Now, it’s religious headscarves that are banned. Then, it was men’s clothes.

Indeed, according to Shaw, the most vehement condemnation of Joan stemmed from the simple fact that “she was the sort of woman that wants to lead a man’s life. They are to be found wherever there are armies on foot or navies on the seas, serving in male disguise, eluding detection for astonishingly long periods, and sometimes, no doubt, escaping it entirely. When they are in a position to defy public opinion they throw off all concealment. You have your Rosa Bonheur painting in male blouse and trousers, and George Sand living a man’s life and almost compelling her Chopins and De Mussets to live women’s lives to amuse her. Had Joan not been one of those ‘unwomanly women’, she might have been canonised much sooner.”

Joan, claims Shaw, was burned at the stake for wanting to live the life of a man. And that, somehow, makes her a very modern heroine indeed.

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon by Nancy Goldstone is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc by Larissa Juliet taylor is published by Yale