The New Year’s Day replacement of the French national flag by the standard of the European Union at Paris’ Arc de Triomphe may have handed a potent symbolic issue to French conservatives ahead of a crucial national election this spring.
The government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron installed the giant blue EU flag at the iconic memorial to France’s fallen soldiers to mark the start of the country’s six-month term as rotating president of the European alliance’s executive council.
The flag came down Sunday but not before leading conservative and nationalist figures slammed the gesture as an insult to national pride and the sacrifice of French veterans.
“President over Europe — yes. Erase French identity — no,” Valerie Pecresse, candidate of the conservative Republican Party who has emerged in recent months as perhaps the top challenger to Mr. Macron’s bid for a second five-year term.
The incident could be particularly sensitive politically for Mr. Macron, who has moved to the right in a bid to shape the political environment in his favor ahead of the two-round election in April.
But he has also put heavy emphasis on his EU role for the next six months, hoping to fill the political vacuum for a leader on the continent with the recent retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally who is planning her own run for the presidency, also seized on the controversy, contending on Twitter that a “massive mobilization” of patriotic outrage had forced the government to back down and remove the EU flag.
Government officials denied they had acted under pressure, saying it was planned all along for the EU flag to fly for just a couple of days into the new year. Other Parisian landmarks, including the Cathedral of Notre Dame, were also lit up in the EU’s signature blue color.
Clement Beaune, Mr. Macron’s European minister, accused conservative critics of “desperately chasing after sterile controversies.”
Mr. Beaune accused Ms. Pecresse and her colleagues on Twitter of making a “serious political mistake.”
“If you were so patriotic, you would know that the French flag was not ‘replaced,’” he said. “An election campaign does not excuse such low-level lies.”