France fetes Joan of Arc's 600th birthday

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The normally tranquil city of Orleans is buzzing with festivities over the next two weeks to mark the 600th birthday of one of France's best cultural exports: Joan of Arc.

On Tuesday, the Loire River swarmed with wooden boats filled with locals dressed in medieval garb — re-enacting Joan of Arc's legendary entry into the city in 1429.

It's an event that liberated Orleans from English invaders, and sealed her place in the history books. It has inspired over the centuries myriad novels, poems, rock songs, operas, plays — and even a blockbuster feature film with Milla Jovovich.

"It's marvelous to see the children dressing up and learning about this great French heroine who's known all over the world," said Jacques Dubarre, dressed in a velvet mantel. "Of course we're also having fun."

In a testament to her international appeal, some 600 contemporary artists — from as far as the U.S., Japan and Russia — have made portraits of Joan of Arc through the ages that will be projected on the City Hall this Friday.

Later in the week, a medieval market will be the scene of period cuisine and music, while a sound and light show will be projected on the city's Gothic cathedral to celebrate her life.

Despite the enduring fame, it's been a rocky ride for the teenage legend.

At just 17, Joan led the French army to victory, only to be burned at the stake as a heretic two years later.

She was heralded as a political symbol of the French far left during World War II, only to be snatched up as the mascot of the far right thirty years later.

It seems like the only thing that anyone can agree on is that she is the ultimate French icon.

"The two most famous figures from France are Napoleon and Joan of Arc, no others quite come close," said Russian journalist Vladimir Dobrovolsky, one of the estimated 40,000 people who attended Tuesday.

But why does a woman whose achievements spanned a mere 2 years inspire so much fascination?

"She achieved greatness but died young and was wronged. She had strong convictions and character but she was a woman, a virgin," said Olivier Bouzy, historian and adviser on Luc Besson's 1999 movie, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc." ''Yes, in many ways she was ahead of her time."

In France she is seen as a sort of symbol of the nation ("nation" being a feminine word in French), but the myths around her began relatively late.

It was in World War I that an effigy of Joan of Arc in armor, which appeared on pictures and postcards, first came to symbolize war and nationhood — in this case, the French fight against Germany.

"Yes, she is the symbol of the nation at war, but the biggest myth is that she actually led the French in battle. She was a prophet who morally guided the army to victory. She was no commander or fighter," said Bouzy.

Questions about her exact identity have left subsequent eras room to fill in the gaps and allowed diverse groups to claim her as inspiration. French far right leader Marine Le Pen staged her anti-immigrant National Front's annual May 1 rally Tuesday in front of a huge Joan of Arc banner.

Bouzy predicts Joan's identity may shift yet again: "Since the '80s she has been an extreme right political figure, but after the Luc Besson film, she's back in the realm of culture, softer."

There indeed seems to be renewed interest in the "softer" cultural face of Joan of Arc. She is currently the subject of a play by the well-known Japanese drama company Theatre No, which will run in Orleans from Saturday.

"Everyone wants to appropriate her, and have their piece," said Orleans deputy mayor, Jean-Pierre Gabelle, "but this festival will put her back where she belongs."