EU flag is collateral damage as French presidential campaign heats up

PARIS — On the surface, the outrage that greeted the EU flag flying solo under the Arc de Triomphe at the weekend was a political storm in a teacup. But it also showed that Europe will be just one of many divisive issues in the upcoming election.

The hoisting of the EU flag (and not the French one) was meant to mark the beginning of the French presidency of the Council of the EU, which kicked off on January 1. Instead, it turned into a fight over France’s history and identity and gave a sense of what is to come in the highly-charged presidential campaign that will dominate French politics until April.

Far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour — not exactly fans of the EU — quickly denounced the move as a “provocation that offends those who fought for France” and an “outrage” (the Arc honors those who fought and died for France in battle and houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).

Even mainstream conservative presidential candidate Valerie Pécresse said the move was “erasing French identity” and called on President Emmanuel Macron to fly the national flag next to the European banner, 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 EU presidency in 2008.

Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon said the flag affair was “disdainful.”

The attack by all of Macron’s presidential rivals highlights one of the main divisions in the campaign, pitting the one unabashedly pro-EU (if still undeclared) candidate — Macron — against candidates with varying degrees of Euroskepticism.

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Support for the European project is the glue that binds Macron’s motley crew electorate, according to internal polling for his political movement La République en Marche. The attacks from rivals seem intended to stifle any attempt by Macron to leverage the EU presidency for his reelection.

It is also the first in a long list of likely mini-controversies around interpretations of France’s history, and the place of the EU and ethnic and religious diversity in it, that will dot the next four months.

Macron’s government and supporters defended the flag placement, saying the soldiers commemorated at the Arc de Triomphe would have celebrated the decades of peace the EU has heralded.

“The founding fathers of the European Union built it to end centuries of war and of sacrifices by soldiers, including unknown soldiers. Seventy years later, this controversy is undignified,” French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti tweeted on behalf of himself and Junior Minister for Europe Clément Beaune.

They pointed to 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.

That defense seems to miss the power of symbolism, especially ahead of big elections, in times of pessimism and hardship. The French are some of the most Euroskeptic people in the EU, and a majority say France is in decline.

Plus, only the Arc de Triomphe was adorned with the flag of Europe, which for some harked back to the occupation of Paris when the Nazi flag was hoisted on the monument.

The move was also in apparent violation of a 1963 French decree stipulating that “flying the colors of Europe on monuments is possible as long as it is done alongside French colors, on the condition that the European flag be placed to the right of the French flag.”

Though other monuments continue to be lit in EU blue, the flag was taken down from the Arc on Sunday, in what was apparent governmental backpeddling.

Beaune on Sunday said it had always been the plan for the flag to come down that day, but on Saturday he had said that the EU flag was meant to fly for “a few days.”

An Elysée spokesperson denied the flag was taken down under pressure, saying it had been removed as scheduled.

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