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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Le Pen's heroine St Joan
Le Pen banners at the statue of Joan of Arc
Le Pen sees St Joan as the best of all that is France
France's far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his supporters have massed around the statue of Joan of Arc in central Paris for their annual May Day celebrations.

BBC News Online looks at the legacy of France's favourite historical figure.

Joan of Arc lived for barely 19 years more than five centuries ago.

Her "career" lasted just 13 months, but contained enough action - and enough vagueness - for her to be claimed as a heroine by any number of groups - from Latin American revolutionaries to Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front.

She has been reinvented as a proto-feminist, a defender of French Jews, an opponent of French Jews, a symbol for the Resistance against the Nazis and now as an anti-immigration icon.

Joan of Arc
The illiterate shepherdess was catapulted into fame

While modern research indicates that she had little direct influence on events around her in the 15th Century, she has been seen as an important force in the 19th, 20th and now 21st Centuries.

The "Maid of Orleans" was born as Jeanne around 1412 into a peasant family.

She was believed to have been a shepherdess, who never learned to read or write.

Called by saints

But when she was about 13, she said she heard the voices of St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret telling her she had a mission to free France from the English and see that the Dauphin Charles be crowned King of France.

These things did indeed happen - the tide was turned against the English invaders in the Hundred Years' War and Charles VII did become king.

The legend of St Joan
Born around 1412
Heard saints' voices from the age of 13
Left home in 1429, helped to lift English siege of Orleans
Accompanied Charles VII to his coronation in Reims
Captured in 1430, ransomed to the English and handed on to the Church
Condemned by the Church for heresy and witchcraft
Burned at the stake in May 1431
25 years later, the trial verdict was annulled, though the Church has never released its files on Joan

Joan of Arc is credited with helping to lift the English siege of Orleans in May 1429, although historians debate whether there was a full siege and whether the teenage Joan led the army or even fought as a soldier or whether she simply accompanied a food convoy.

But the image of her cutting her hair and donning armour to be taken seriously by the men around her is the one that remains.

She did attend the coronation of Charles at Reims Cathedral but was later betrayed, tried for the offence against the Church of wearing men's clothes and burned at the stake for being a witch and a heretic in Rouen in May 1431.

Charles VII - who had failed to save Joan when alive - ordered an inquiry 25 years after her death which cleared her name.

She was then virtually forgotten by the French for 400 years.

Resurrection of a legend

Her new role as a rallying icon for almost any group that felt like appropriating her began in the mid-19th Century when she "became" a patriotic republican.

The statue of Joan of Arc in Paris
The Vatican has kept its files on St Joan closed
Later she was portrayed as a religious conservative heroine and the Roman Catholic Church made her a saint in 1920.

The way in which her legacy could be turned to favour various arguments was shown clearly at the end of the 19th Century when the Dreyfus scandal hit France.

Both supporters and denouncers of the Jewish army captain wrongly convicted of selling military secrets said the Maid of Orleans would have been on their side.

Feminist icon

Dreyfus's detractors said Joan's campaign against the English showed she opposed all foreigners whereas others pointed to indications that three-quarters of her troops were not French, showing she favoured the absorption of immigrants.

Feminists hailed Joan as one of them, forcing her way into a world ruled by men and in Latin America she has been adopted as a female version of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

To battle! God will give us victory!

Rallying cry quoted by Jean-Marie Le Pen
Resistance fighters against the Nazis in World War II adopted the symbol of a cross with a double horizontal bar that is associated with Joan's home region of Lorraine.

At the same time, General Charles de Gaulle did his best to portray himself as a modern Joan, fighting the invaders of France.

And now Jean-Marie Le Pen has become the saint's chief defender, seeing himself fighting - as Joan did - against a Europe dominated by the Anglo-Saxon hegemony of Germany and Britain.

Mr Le Pen has statues of Joan in his home and office, calls her his "favourite statesman" (he uses the masculine form) and is fond of quoting her: "To battle! God will give us victory!"

Used as a symbol of a pure, religious and anti-immigration "France of the old days", Joan seemed alien to many young French people.

But a recent Hollywood film directed by Frenchman Luc Besson gave her a new resonance and she remains France's most popular historical figure, ahead of Napoleon, Louis XIV and de Gaulle.

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