French authorities took down a temporary installation of the European Union flag from the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris on Sunday, after rightwing opponents of President Emmanuel Macron accused him of “erasing” French identity.
The giant blue flag was raised in place of a French flag on New Year’s Eve to mark France’s turn at the rotating presidency of the EU Council, which it will hold for the next six months.
The arch, a monument to war dead, and other landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon are also being illuminated with blue lights for the remainder of this week.
But Macron’s rightwing rivals for the presidential election four months away seized on the removal of the tricolor flag, calling it an affront to France’s heritage and its veterans.
“Preside over Europe yes, erase French identity no!” tweeted Valerie Pecresse, the conservative candidate who polls indicate could be the main challenger to Macron in the upcoming vote.
She urged him to restore the French flag, saying, “We owe it to our soldiers who spilled their blood for it.”
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who had vowed to file a complaint with the State Council, France’s highest court for administrative matters, also denounced the move, while Eric Zemmour, a far-right media pundit who is also running against Macron, called it “an insult”.
Le Pen on Sunday called the overnight removal of the EU flag “a great patriotic victory,” claiming on Twitter that a “massive mobilisation” had forced Macron to backpedal.
But an official in 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 Clement Beaune, who on Saturday accused Macron’s opponents of “desperately chasing after the sterile controversies of the far right,” also denied any “retreat”.
“We embrace Europe, but that doesn’t take anything away from our French identity,” Beaune told France Inter radio.
He said the decision to remove the flag during the night was made by officials at the agency in charge of national monuments.
The presidency official, who asked not to be named, could not say when the massive French flag would fly again under the Arc, but noted it was not a permanent feature for the monument.