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DOMREMY, France (Reuters) - Politics pushed its way into celebrations in France on Friday to mark the 600th anniversary of Joan of Arc's birth, as the far right accused the ruling conservatives of hijacking a national saint to win favour ahead of elections.
President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Joan of Arc's birthplace in the eastern town of Domremy to pay homage to the Catholic martyr who as a teenage girl led the French army to drive English invaders out of the city of Orleans in 1429.
The National Front, which likes to use Joan of Arc as its own nationalist symbol, accused Sarkozy of "manipulation" ahead of presidential elections in April and May as far-right leader Marine Le Pen prepared to make her own tribute speech on Saturday to one of France's patron saints.
The tug-of-war threatened to mar a street party on Friday evening, when dozens of torch-bearing revelers in mediaeval garb will parade through Orleans in memory of a victory that revived hope in a country torn apart by the Hundred Years' War.
"How can they pay tribute to someone who has defended the honor and sovereignty of France when in parallel they are organizing the enslavement of the French people to the financial markets and Brussels-dominated Europe," Le Pen said this week.
Sometimes known as the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc has become a powerful symbol of France for her fearless resolve in rallying French soldiers against the English and their allies and securing the coronation of Charles VII.
Credited with awakening a national consciousness, her legacy has taken on particular resonance ahead of this year's elections, as France battles to safeguard its triple-A credit rating and keep its economy afloat amid the euro crisis.
Sarkozy -- who is expected to run for a second term against Socialist Francois Hollande, who leads opinion polls, with Le Pen in third place -- will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to push ahead with plans for a new European treaty as the bloc fights to save its single currency.
Sarkozy referred to Joan of Arc in his 2007 election campaign, stating: "Joan is France" while on a visit to the city of Rouen, where she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431.
In a New Year's speech last weekend, he urged France to show stoicism in the worst economic crisis since World War Two.
"Joan is part of our national identity. She forged it. She strengthened it," Sarkozy said in the town whose name has been extended to Domremy-la-Pucelle, or "Domremy-the-Maid" after the heroine, adding: "Joan does not belong to any political party or clan."
Sarkozy visited the house where Joan of Arc was born on January 6, 1412 and was scheduled to then travel to Vaucouleurs, where she began her mission to lead the dauphin Charles to victory.
It is hardly the first time Joan of Arc has been adopted for political purposes. Before becoming a far-right symbol, she was celebrated by left-wing politician Jean Jaures at the turn of the 20th century, then borrowed by the monarchists in 1920 following her canonization that year by Pope Benedict XV.
Former presidents Charles de Gaulle, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac all paid homage to her in their time, and the National Front has a statue to her outside its headquarters in Paris.
"The image of this woman who was weakness itself, who stood up to authorities, whether political or ecclesiastical, has become a myth that unites people beyond all considerations," said Jean-Pierre Sueur, a Socialist politician and mayor of Orleans from 1989 to 2001.
Encroaching on far-right territory reflects Sarkozy's need to win back voters who have defected to the National Front since the charismatic Le Pen took over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, vowing to pull France out of the euro and bring in protectionist policies.
Sarkozy, expected to confirm his re-election bid by March, is grappling with some of the gloomiest popularity ratings ever seen by a French leader, and could be defeated by as much as 10 percentage points in a run-off against Hollande, polls show.
Last year they even showed he could be knocked out by Le Pen in round one.
"I am pleased to see that the National Front is so strong that it's forcing the president to pay tribute to this great person," Le Pen, who named one of her daughters after the saint, said on Thursday.
Festivities will continue all year for Joan of Arc, whose story is not without its own controversies.
Her claim of being guided by the voices of saints led to suggestions she may have been mentally ill, and historians have questioned every detail of her life, including her date of birth and whether she was really a woman.
Additional reporting by Mourad Guichard in Orleans and John Irish and Vicky Buffery in Paris; Writing by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Catherine Bremer, Richard Meares