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PARIS – At first glance, the outrage that greeted the EU flag flying solo under the Arc de Triomphe this weekend was a political storm in a cup of tea. But it also showed that Europe will only be one of many dividing issues in the next elections.
The hoisting of the European flag (and not the French one) was to mark the start of the French presidency of the Council of the EU, which began on January 1. Instead, it turned into a fight over the history and identity of France and gave a hint of what is to come in the heavily loaded presidential campaign that will dominate French politics through April.
Far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour – not exactly fans of the EU – quickly denounced the decision as a “provocation who offends those who fought for France ”and a“outrage(The Arc honors those who fought and died for France in combat and houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).
Even mainstream conservative presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse said the move “erased French identity” and called on President Emmanuel Macron to fly the national flag alongside the European banner, as former President Nicolas Sarkozy did. had done in a ceremony rekindling the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier when the country last held the EU Presidency in 2008.
The far left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon said the flag affair was “disdainful.”
The attack on all of Macron’s presidential rivals highlights one of the campaign’s main divisions, pitting the shameless pro-EU candidate (if he is still not declared) – Macron – against candidates presenting diverse degrees of euroscepticism.
Support for the European project is the glue that binds Macron heterogeneous electorate, according to an internal poll of its political movement La République en Marche. The rivals’ attacks appear intended to stifle any attempt by Macron to leverage the EU presidency for re-election.
It is also the first of a long list of probable mini-polemics around the interpretations of the history of France and the place of the EU and the ethnic and religious diversity in it, which will dot the next four. month.
The government and Macron supporters have defended the placement of the flag, saying the soldiers commemorated at the Arc de Triomphe would have celebrated the decades of peace announced by the EU.
“The founding fathers of the European Union built it to end centuries of war and the sacrifice of soldiers, including unknown soldiers. Seventy years later, this controversy is outrageous “, declared the French Minister of Justice, Eric Dupond-Moretti. tweeted in his name and that of the Minister Delegate for Europe Clément Beaune.
They highlighted the fact that other important monuments around Paris – including the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and the Elysée Palace – were lit in blue in honor of the EU Presidency without triggering the same firestorm.
This defense seems to lack the power of symbolism, especially before big elections, in times of pessimism and hardship. The French are among the most Eurosceptic people in the EU, and a majority say France is in decline.
In addition, only the Arc de Triomphe was adorned with the flag of Europe, which for some recalled the occupation of Paris when the Nazi flag was hoisted on the monument.
The movement was also apparent violation of a French decree of 1963 stipulating that “displaying the colors of Europe on monuments is possible as long as it is done alongside the French colors, provided that the European flag is placed to the right of the French flag”.
Although other monuments continue to be lit in European blue, the flag was removed from the Arc on Sunday, in what was apparently a government backlash.
Beaune said on Sunday that the flag had always been expected to descend that day, but on Saturday he said the EU flag was supposed to fly for “a few days”.
An Elysee spokesman denied that the flag was withdrawn under pressure, saying it was withdrawn as planned.