French election year kicks off with EU flag fracas at Paris's Arc de Triomphe

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France’s far right claimed a victory on Sunday after officials took down the EU flag from the Arc de Triomphe following outrage expressed by President Emmanuel Macron’s right-wing rivals for the Elysée Palace. The starred, blue flag of the EU was raised in place of the French flag on New Year's Eve to mark France's taking over the rotating presidency of the EU Council, which it will hold for the next six months.

The Arc de Triomphe, a monument to war dead, and other landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and the Panthéon were also illuminated with blue lights in tribute to the 27-nation bloc, of which France is a founding member.

But with France’s presidential election less than four months away, Macron's right-wing rivals seized on the temporary removal of the tricolour, calling it an affront to France's heritage and its veterans.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was the first to tweet her “outrage” over the flag switch on Saturday, claiming it “offended those who fought for France” and vowing to file a complaint with the State Council, France's highest court for administrative matters.

Other presidential hopefuls soon followed suit, including far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour, who branded the installation an “insult”, and the main conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse, who accused the government of attempting to “erase French identity”.

>> Conservative Pécresse looks to establish herself as the ‘only threat’ to Macron

When the EU flag was eventually removed on Sunday, Le Pen hailed “a great patriotic victory”, claiming on Twitter that a “massive mobilisation” had forced Macron to backpedal.

Rejecting talk of a U-turn, an official at the French presidency said the flag's removal before dawn was “in line with the planned schedule”, insisting that unlike the blue lights for monuments, it was only supposed to be at the Arc for two days.

Europe Minister Clément Beaune, who had previously said the flag would remain “several days”, also denied any “retreat”.

“We embrace Europe, but that doesn't take anything away from our French identity,” Beaune told France Inter radio, accusing Macron's opponents of “desperately chasing after the sterile controversies of the far right”.

The presidency official, who asked not to be named, could not say when the massive French flag would fly again under the famed Arc, but noted that it was not a permanent feature for the monument.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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