DOMREMY-LA-PUCELLE, France — With a big dollop of patriotism, French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday struck back at far-right nationalists who claim fabled heroine Joan of Arc as a symbol of their own.
The French leader made a pilgrimage to Joan of Arc's birthplace in eastern France for the 600th anniversary of her birth and delivered a lofty speech that he hopes will improve his soured image in many French minds.
With presidential elections this spring, the conservative Sarkozy's speech amounted to a political pre-emptive strike against the extreme-right National Front party that has sought to co-opt Joan of Arc as its patron saint.
"Joan belongs to no party, no faction, no clan," Sarkozy said in the town of Vaucouleurs, after visiting the nearby village of Domremy-La-Pucelle where she was born. "Joan is what France has singularly, and most universally."
The teenage Joan of Arc led the French to several victories over the English during the Hundred Years War. She was caught, tried for heresy and witchcraft, and burned at the stake in 1431 for her convictions.
She had claimed she heard voices from a trio of saints telling her to deliver France from the English. The Vatican canonized her in 1920 and Pope Benedict XVI last year hailed her as a model for public officials.
The anniversary of Joan's birth on Jan. 6, 1412, couldn't have come at a better time for Sarkozy: Though his poll numbers have crept up in recent weeks, they remain low and he still trails Socialist Party nominee Francois Hollande in the race to the two-round election in April and May.
Many political pundits partly credit Sarkozy's presidential election victory in 2007 to his success in siphoning off support from the National Front by building a hard-as-nails image while he was interior minister for nearly four years.
With a cool and relaxed delivery of the 19-minute speech, Sarkozy attempted to pull the symbolism of Joan of Arc toward the political center – and appeared to revel in speech that he clearly felt hit the mark.
"May we continue ... to think of her as the symbol of our unity, and not leave her in the hands of those who would like to use her to divide," he said. "Dividing in the name of Joan of Arc is to betray Joan of Arc's memory."
In grandiloquent praise, Sarkozy depicted Joan not just as a defender of France, but as an international ideal of the fight for freedom and a purveyor of women's rights – centuries before the feminist movement.
"The place of Joan of Arc was not in gilded legend, but in the history of France ... Joan is the incarnation of the most beautiful French virtues," said Sarkozy.
While noting the English "enemy" of yesteryear that Joan of Arc had battled, Sarkozy also insisted that she represented "love of one's country without hatred of others."
Sarkozy sprinkled his speech with references to other French notables – like Gen. Charles de Gaulle, writer Victor Hugo and the World War II Resistance hero Jean Moulin – laying out a pantheon that could pull many heart strings.
The National Front – currently led by another woman, Marine Le Pen – was planning its own commemorations of Joan of Arc in Paris on Saturday. Her sharp-tongued father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was set to make a speech.
AP Writers Sylvie Corbet and Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.