Sunday 22 September 2019

Warning over resurging ‘old demons’ as leaders remember First World War

The Paris weather, grey and damp, seemed aptly fitting when remembering a war fought in mud and relentless horror.

(From L) Moroccan King Mohammed VI, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk towards the Arc de Triomphe (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
(From L) Moroccan King Mohammed VI, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk towards the Arc de Triomphe (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

By John Leicester, Raf Casert and Lori Hinnant, Associated Press

World leaders solemnly marked the end of the slaughter of the First World War 100 years ago at commemorations that drove home the message “never again” but also exposed the globe’s new political fault lines.

As Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and dozens of other heads of state and government listened in silence, French President Emmanuel Macron used the occasion, as its host, to sound a warning about the fragility of peace and the dangers of nationalism.

“The old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos and of death,” Mr Macron said.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he said.

“In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others’, you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important – its moral values.”

Donald Trump, ostensibly the main target of Macron’s message, sat stony-faced.

The US president has proudly declared himself a nationalist. But if Mr Trump felt singled out by Mr Macron’s remarks, he did not show it. He later described the commemoration as “very beautiful”.

Donald Trump, second left, watches French President Emmanuel Macron putting his hand on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s knee (AP Photo/Francois Mori, Pool)

As well as spelling out the horrific costs of conflict to those with arsenals capable of waging a third world war, the ceremony also served up a joyful reminder of the intense sweetness of peace.

High school students read from letters that soldiers and civilians wrote 100 years ago when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front.

Brought alive again by people too young to have known global war themselves, the ghostly voices seemed collectively to say: Please, do not make our mistakes.

“I only hope the soldiers who died for this cause are looking down upon the world today,” American soldier Captain Charles S. Normington wrote on November 11 1918, in one of the letters.

“The whole world owes this moment of real joy to the heroes who are not here to help enjoy it.”

Vladimir Putin talks with Angela Merkel and Donald Trump (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

The Paris weather, grey and damp, seemed aptly fitting when remembering a war fought in mud and relentless horror.

The commemorations started late, overshooting the centenary of the exact moment when, 100 years earlier at 11am, an eerie silence replaced the thunder of war on the front lines.

Mr Macron recalled that one billion shells fell on France alone from 1914 to 1918 .

As bells marking the armistice hour rang across Paris and in many nations ravaged by the four years of carnage, Mr Macron and other leaders were still on their way to the centennial site at the Arc de Triomphe.

Under a sea of black umbrellas, a line of leaders led by Mr Macron and his wife, Brigitte, marched in silence on the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees, after leaving their buses.

Mr Trump arrived separately, in a motorcade that drove past three topless protesters with anti-war slogans on their chests who somehow got through the rows of security and were quickly bundled away by police.

The Femen group claimed responsibility. French authorities said the three women faced charges of sexual exhibitionism.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited security protocols for the presidential motorcade’s solo trip down the grand flag-lined avenue, which was closed to traffic.

Last to arrive was the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who shook Mr Trump’s hand and flashed him a thumbs-up.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was positioned in pride of place between Mr Trump and Mr Macron, an eloquent symbol of victors and vanquished now standing together, shoulder to shoulder.

Overhead, fighter jets ripped through the sky, trailing red, white and blue smoke in homage to the French flag.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

The geographical spread of the more than 60 heads of state and government who attended, silent and reflective, showed how the “war to end all wars” left few corners of the earth untouched but which, little more than two decades later, was followed so quickly and catastrophically by the Second World War.

On the other side of the globe, Australia and New Zealand held ceremonies to recall how the war killed and wounded soldiers and civilians in unprecedented numbers and in gruesome new, mechanised ways.

Those countries lost tens of thousands of soldiers far away in Europe and, most memorably in the 1915 battle of Gallipoli, in Turkey.

The gulf between Trump’s “America First” credo and European leaders was starkly underscored again later on Sunday, when Mr Trump went his own way.

Donald Trump visited Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

He visited an American cemetery outside Paris at precisely the moment that Mr Macron, Mrs Merkel and other dignitaries were opening a peace forum where the French leader again sounded the alarm about crumbling international harmony as he ruminated about the legacy of the morning’s commemorations.

“Will it be the shining symbol of durable peace between nations or will it be a picture of a last moment of unity before the world goes down in new disorder?” Mr Macron asked. “It depends only on us.”

While praising France for “a wonderful two days,” Mr Trump described his rainy stop at the American cemetery at Suresnes as “the highlight of the trip”.

On Saturday, Mr Trump drew criticism for cancelling a separate commemorative visit to the Belleau Wood battleground northeast of Paris because of rain.

With so many leaders in Paris, the commemoration also provoked a flurry of diplomacy on the sidelines, with conflict in Yemen and Syria among the hot-button issues.

On Sunday, Merkel met the head of the United Nations and the president of Serbia.

It was a Serb teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian crown prince in Sarajevo in 1914 to set off events which led to the outbreak of war.

PA Media

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