Paris By the grave of an unknown soldier, under Napoleon’s grand arch, at the centenary of the end of a great, terrible war, France’s president lectured the powerful.
The first world war’s lesson and legacy were clear, he said. Peace is hard won and is fragile.
A century ago, after such loss, the world took a path of humiliation and revenge and it fuelled the rise of nationalism and totalitarianism.
His audience, metres away, included presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdogan.
Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism, Emmanuel Macron declared. A withdrawal into isolationism would be “a grave error that future generations would very rightly make us responsible for”.
“The old demons are rising again, ready to wreak chaos and death,” he warned. “History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course again.”
He wanted the 70 world leaders assembled there – including Australian Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, seated just next to Putin – to renew a pledge to honour the dead and “place peace above all else”.
Trump listened, leaning forward, his eyes narrow. He was one of the last to applaud as the speech ended.
Just a few weeks ago, at a rally in Texas, he had said “you know what I am? I’m a nationalist. Ok? I’m a nationalist…. Use that word. Use that word”.
Macron did use that word, and he used the weight of the war dead to argue for multilateralism, internationalism, for groups that spanned borders such as the European Union and the United Nations.
“Let us add our hopes together instead of seeing our fears oppose each other,” he said, appealing for global unity in the fight against global warning, poverty, hunger, inequality and ignorance.
His speech was not only political. He commemorated the dead, the wounded, the missing, their families and loved ones, thanked them for their sacrifices in “a hell that no one could imagine”. He thanked the fighters on French soil from around the world.
He recalled that both “victors and vanquished were plunged for a long time in the same darkness” and celebrated the ties of friendship that now bind Germany and France “on a bedrock of common goals”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also among the leaders present.
Earlier, the bells of Notre Dame rang across Paris as the leaders walked, shoulder to shoulder (minus Trump and Putin) up the Champs Elysees to the arch in a symbolic show of unity.
Trump had arrived with his own security detachment, his motorcade narrowly dodging a topless demonstrator from Ukraine’s Femen group, who have been protesting against what they called the presence of “war criminals” at the Armistice commemorations.
It was a moment of colour on a grey, rainy, sombre day.
By contrast, 100 years ago the streets of Paris were a riot of sheer joy: hat waving, exuberant citizens and soldiers celebrating the armistice. They played violins, trumpets, accordions; they quaffed beers and smoked cigars, they danced in spontaneous conga lines. Women stuffed flowers into soldiers’ jackets and the men kissed them with abandon.
A century later, a group of Australian current and former Navy servicemen and women reflected on what the day meant to them.
Lee Webster, from Perth, had six great-great uncles in the war – one died at the battle of Fromelles.
He was here to remember the sacrifice of those who fought and those who died.
It made him “proud of our heritage” to remember Australia’s role, he said. And the still-strong camaraderie forged with the French is “so beautiful to see”.
“We served for peace, not war,” he said, for himself and his forebears.
As the ceremony began, schoolchildren read words from century-old diaries and letters.
American captain Charles S. Normington had reported: “In the parade were hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the US, England, Canada, France, Australia, Italy and the colonies. Each soldier had his arms full of French girls, some crying, others laughing; each girl had to kiss every soldier before she would let him pass.”
French woman Denise Brüller wrote to her soldier fiancé of “this incredible thought that not one more man will fall, that the immense length of the front is silent. Nothing but silence. Great tears fall, as I think that it is all over.”
And a German foot soldier, Erich Remarque:
“All of this is going to be left behind, simply, fading behind us gradually, at the pace of our steps. In an hour’s time, everything will have disappeared and disappeared to the point that one might believe it never existed.
“How can we comprehend this? And we who are here, who should laugh and cry out for joy, feel a heaviness in our stomachs.”