Joan of Arc & The Color of History

th-3By S.G. Kazolias. A young, mixed-race French girl from the city of Orléans is being burned at the stake because a local association chose her to represent Joan of Arc at this year’s Fête de Jeanne d’Arc. The 17-year-old  Mathilde Edey Gamassou, whose father is from the African country of Benin, was selected out of 250 candidates for the celebration of the 1429 victory that freed Orléans from the English and the ethnic French, anti-immigrant movement hit the ceiling.

Mathilde, photo lifted from Facebook

Some of the Tweets against this choice had serious racist undertones and the Public Prosecutor has decided to press charges for incitement to racial hate. Expressions of public racism are punishable in France by prison and large fines. There are two Tweets in particular which are targeted: one Tweet insinuated Mathilde looks like a baboon while another posted the image of bananas. But less viral outrage at the choice is widespread and has opened a verbal war between those who want France’s White and Christian history to be respected and those who want to promote today’s cosmopolitan Republic deeply changed by decades of Muslim, African and Maghreb immigration.

The ‘Identitaires’ have a new battlehorse

The most virulent opponents are those the French call “identitaires”; right-wing, anti-immigration, ethnic-French who want France to be White and Christian. They insist Joan of Arc was not only a White Virgin Catholic from Lorraine but that her stated goal was to expel foreigners from France; in her case the English.

The city of Orléans has voiced its support for Mathilde. Mayor Olivier Carré Tweeted that  she “was chosen by the jury, the army, the clergy and the association. The only criteria: in 2018, as over the past 589 years, the people of Orléans  celebrate Joan of Arc with a young woman who evokes her courage, her faith and her vision. Mathilde possesses all these qualities.” Mathilde is a practicing Catholic.

One question centers around Joan of Arc’s “vision.”  The anti-immigrant ‘identitaires’ on the right have always used Joan of Arc as a symbol because her stated goal was to rid France of foreigners. During her trial, in Rouen in 1431, Joan was asked whether God loved the English. Joan answered: “He loves the English in England.” Those opposed to Mathilde as Joan say the choice is a provocation and  “a falsification of history.”

th-2More moderate opposition voices suggest she could have been chosen to represent Marianne which is the image of the French Republic, but not Joan of Arc. “Would you ask Morgan Freeman to play General de Gaulle?” they ask. They say, it is not a question of whether Mathilde is well integrated or not. It is a question of changing  history to promote “diversity”.  Their argument is when you integrate a country, you learn to say “we” and you accept your new nation’s history and traditions as your own and do not try to change the host country to your image.

La Marianne, symbol of the French Republic

Supporters of the choice of Mathilde say she fulfills all the criteria. There is also an attempt to get those with migration background to feel France is their country. In 2016, then Economy Minister, Emanuel Macron said in Orleans: “We mustn’t leave Joan to the National Front,” referring to the right-wing, anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen who lost last year’s presidential election to Macron. Others respond: “Jesus was not a blond with blue eyes,” as is so often represented in religious paintings. They denounce “the racist hate of the faschosphere.”

However, answering question on BFM-TV on February 25, Marine Le Pen, the President of the anti-immigrant National Front, surprized reporters when she called the racist Tweets “shameful” and gave her support to Mathilde.  “This is not a biographical film of Joan ofArc,” Le Pen said. “It is about the values of commitment… And this girl meets all the criteria.” Le Pen added “it has nothing to do with the color of  your skin.”

No matter how well meaning those who chose Mathilde are, this is a polemic France could have done without and I am not sure it will favor greater public opinion for accepting France as a country which is no longer all White, nor all Christian. It comes at a time when polls show increased opposition to immigration and growing fear that those who are arriving want to change the way the French live.

A modern Marianne postage stamp