Most tourists who have ever headed to France regard the Eiffel Tower as the figurative centre of the city, the must-see attraction for the inimitable selfie of the steel structure to share with friends on social media.
Yes, the tower is certainly iconic, but most Parisiennes point to the Arc de Triomphe where the 12 main avenues of the city converge as being the key focal point of the city.
To long-time city dwellers, the monument at the western end of the Champs-Elysees is mostly referred to as “l’Etoile” — the Star — because of the roads radiating from the vast roundabout. Work on the monument began in 1806 and it took 30 years to complete — a very grand monument to honour Frenchmen who fell in war up to the reign of Napoleon.
That France endured such a terrible toll during the First World War — it lost more than a million men defending the city of Verdun, and 27,000 on a single day there just one week into the bloody four-year butchery — the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc became all the more significant.
For generations of French who lived through four years of Nazi Occupation between 1940 and 1944, the sight of a large swastika flag hanging underneath was an ever-present reminder of the loss of freedoms and misery inflicted by the German occupiers.
Give all of the above, and the still highly emotional relationship between the stones and stories that have placed l’Arc de Triomphe at the very centre of France, its history and heritage, why would someone allow the blue and yellow stars of the European Union flag to be flown from the 100-metre-high structure?
The thinking behind the move was to acknowledge that France took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on Jan. 1 for the next six months. By Jan. 3, the flag was down, removed after an outcry by French nationalists that it had no place there.
For the government of President Emmanuel Macron, the flag was a symbol of the peace and prosperity that the EU has brought to Europe. Indeed, the idea of a political, economic and social bloc unifying the nations of western Europe that had plunged the continent into two bloody wars in under three decades and killed some 50 million, grew from the very ruins of the post-war continent.
Yes, the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks across the city were also adorned in EU flags or lit up blue and yellow — only l’Arc de Triomphe mattered.
Heading to the polls
And in four months’ time, French voters will be heading to the polls in the first round of a presidential election to pass verdict on Macron’s first five years in the Elysee Palace.
For all of the prestige that comes with France being the rotating president of the EU council, with a presidential election campaign underway now that the calendar has turned into 2022, the position is more fraught with national politics than ever before.
With the retirement now of long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Macron — a staunch European federalist — is eager to cast himself as the new leader of the EU. For his political opponents and particularly those on the right, the EU is anathema.
Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour were quick to denounce the EU flag as a provocation and an outrage, while even the more mainstream centrist candidate Valerie Pecresse, from the Republican party, said the display was “erasing French identity”.
She called on Macron to fly the national flag next to the EU, as former President Nicolas Sarkozy had done at a ceremony reviving the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when the country last held the presidency of the council back in 2008.
Incidentally, the blue element of the French tricolor had been officially tweaked to a slightly different shade of blue just two months ago — a move that eluded the ire of ardent nationalists. This flag flap, however, is a far more political matter as the election looms large.
Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon described the event as “disdainful.”
Crowded field of candidates
As things stand now in opinion polls, Macron leads the crowded field of candidates with around 25 per cent support.
The French election system was developed to ensure that voters are left with a clear choice between two distinct candidates if there is no outright winner in the first vote.
Le Pen has around 16 per cent support now, neck-and-neck with Pecresse. Zemmour has 13 per cent support, Melenchon at 9 per cent, with the Green candidate Yannick Jadot at 7 per cent and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo at 4 per cent
Le Pen was easily defeated by Macron in 2017 by 66.1 to 33.9 per cent. This time around, she is seen as Macron’s main rival and likely to join him in the second round of voting. She wants an end to naturalisation by marriage and of automatic citizenship for people born on French soil.
She also plans to restrict access to family allowances to French people exclusively with a five-year waiting period for foreigners, and she wants to abolish subsidies given to renewable energy. Her 2017 policies of taking France out of the EU, the Schengen visa area of Europe and giving up the euro as the French unit of currency have been dropped this time out.
This softer version of right-wing politics, however, hasn’t gone well with hardliners, and she is looking over her shoulder at Zemmour and his Reconquest movement.
A commentator on French television, Zemmour gained notoriety for his provocations on Islam, immigration and women — and has been sued many times as a result. He was convicted of provoking racial discrimination in 2011.
Polls now suggest Macron would defeat Le Pen by a 57-43 margin. Against Pecresse, the margin would be 53-47.