Within just 48 hours, an EU flag went up — and then back down — under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, sparking a far-right culture war over national identity and leaving the French government insisting it had not bowed to critics.
France initially hoisted the flag on December 31, part of a celebration of France assuming the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2022. Almost instantly, however, far-right politicians latched onto the move, arguing it was a sign the French government had abandoned the country’s identity. By Sunday, the flag had come down, with the government saying that was always the plan and striking back at the far-right attacks.
“The flag was scheduled to be withdrawn on Sunday,” Clément Beaune, the country’s European affairs minister, said during an interview Sunday with France Inter. “There was no retreat.”
That didn’t stop far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen from declaring a “great patriotic victory” on Twitter Sunday afternoon.
“The government was forced to remove the European Union flag from the Arc de Triomphe,” she said. “Thank you to the massive mobilization of all the lovers of France and the Republic to make Emmanuel Macron back down.”
The moment symbolizes the forces at play as France heads toward a presidential election this spring. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to vie for a second term but is facing pressure from the right — not only from Le Pen but also from far-right candidate Éric Zemmour. Macron has sought to use France’s turn helming the EU presidency to show how France can influence the EU and benefit from its membership. Le Pen and Zemmour have similarly used the moment to push their own Euroskeptic arguments.
That was the backdrop on New Year’s Eve when the French government raised the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe, while also bathing the Eiffel Tower and other major landmarks in EU blue. France officially took over the presidency of the Council of the EU on Saturday and will retain it for half a year. In this role, the country will be responsible for chairing meetings of EU ministers.
Le Pen decried the flag-raising as “an attack on the identity of our country, an insult to those who died for the Fatherland,” arguing the EU flag had replaced the French flag.
The Arc de Triomphe is a memorial to French soldiers who fought and perished in battle.
“This provocation offends those who fought for France. I ask E. Macron to restore our national flag,” she said in another tweet, generating more than 14,000 likes and thousands of retweets.
On Sunday, Beaune shot back at her remarks, warning of polemics. “Daring to summon the memory of the veterans, I say it, that is an abject shame,” he said.
And the European flag had never replaced the French one, he said.
“They’re talking nonsense. They lied,” he said on France Inter. “We have never, ever removed a French flag.”
The French flag, he said, is only hoisted under the Arc de Triomphe on special occasions, such as the national day on July 14 — on this occasion, it hadn’t been up. The far right, he argued, preferred “emptiness over the European flag.”
The spat comes a few months before the French presidential election is scheduled to begin on April 10.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zemmour struck similar tones to Le Pen: “The Arc de Triomphe under Macron: after the ransacking and the packing, the contempt,” he said.
Center-right presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse also chimed in, pushing for two flags to fly under the monument.
“Presiding over Europe yes, erasing the French identity no! I solemnly ask Emmanuel Macron to restore our tricolor flag next to that of Europe under the Arc de Triomphe. We owe it to all our fighters who shed their blood for it,” she said.
Beaune warned Pécresse’s stance makes her an accomplice to the extreme right. This was, he said, “a serious political error.”
While Beaune insisted that he was “proud” that the flag had flown “for a few days,” the display was ultimately short-lived.
An Elysée spokesperson also denied the flag was taken down under pressure, saying it had been removed overnight Saturday into Sunday as initially scheduled.
Clea Caulcutte contributed reporting.