South Africa

ARMISTICE DAY

Today’s world leaders assemble in the shadows of their forebears 100 years earlier

Today’s world leaders assemble in the shadows of their forebears 100 years earlier
(R-L) US President Donald J. Trump, US First Lady Melania Trump, Morocco's King Mohammed VI and his son Crown Prince Moulay attend the international ceremony for the Centenary of the WWI Armistice of 11 November 1918 at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, 11 November 2018. World leaders have gathered in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice with services taking place across the world to commemorate the occasion. EPA-EFE/BENOIT TESSIER / POOL MAXPPP OUT

In the shelter of the Arc de Triomphe, world leaders gathered on Sunday to celebrate 100 years since the end of World War I. Ordinary people in the rain managed to sneak a peek from outside the well-patrolled barriers and armed layers of security surrounding the ceremony.

Among a wet stream of incidental tourists, curious passers-by and true patriots gathered in the closed-off Paris roads behind the Arc de Triomphe, was a couple waiting for United States president Donald Trump to notice them.

If they had data to livestream the proceedings on their phones, or if they were lunching in one of the few open bistros in the area which screened the ceremony on televisions, they would have seen Trump sitting next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 60 other world leaders, listening to a 40-year-old casting serious side-eyes at him, speaking in a language he doesn’t understand.

It’s not only about the French tongue. President Emmanuel Macron, hosting the ceremony, was speaking the language of multilateralism, forcefully rebuking nationalism and calling it a “betrayal of patriotism”. He warned against “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death” — possibly also referring to the sentiments of far-right groups in his own country and within Europe preaching anti-immigrant sentiments.

If Trump had begged to differ, he didn’t tweet it, but his duo of supporters outside in the rain on the Avenue de la Grande-Armee were clear about their beliefs. There’s a mere “difference in philosophy between internationalism and nationalism, and I go with nationalism”, said Daniel Berrios, an American living in Naples with his wife, a civilian providing support for the US military in Naples, where the couple and their nine-year-old daughter have been living for the past five or six years.

There is something about the individuality of a country, their distinct qualities… I think that is diversity.”

They made the trip to Paris — “it’s Paris, after all!”, his enchanted wife, Keely exclaimed when asked if she didn’t mind standing in the rain — to see Trump, or at least for him to see them waving their flags (they were the only ones with flags this side of the Arc de Triomphe) from behind the tinted windows of “The Beast”, the armoured Cadillac in which the US president travels.

Daniel Berrios, wearing a cap with Trump’s name on it, said they were there to “honour the sacrifice” of “a lot of brave men [who] gave their lives through Europe” in the war. “It was an important event in world history.”

Multilateralism, to Berrios, was “an internationalist philosophy” equivalent to a “Soviet-style totalitarian system”. The US supported a devolved system, and that was also why the country had a system of federal states, he explained.

Keely Berrios said although she’s not as well-versed in politics as her husband.

Trump and I speak the same language, blunt and abrupt.

I like his style. I know he can be abrasive, and sometimes I do cringe.”

Asked what she thought about his past behaviour towards women, Keely Berrios ascribed it to Trump “just being a man”.

During the interview an older American woman passed by, wearing a poppy on her coat, telling the Berrios couple she’d never met anyone like them. The woman, a liberal, professed her love for European nations like Britain and France, and said she had been in town for business before and witnessed Bastille Day celebrations and military parades in the same spot. She didn’t reveal her name or her line of work.

Meanwhile on the stage inside, outside earshot, Macron continued speaking about the “universal values” of France which the soldiers defended more than a century ago, rejecting “the selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests”.

Today’s is, however, a strange new world in which a president walking in the French rain without an umbrella — as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau did — is hailed as an act of heroism. Trump was slated on social media after he failed to attend a ceremony on Saturday in an American cemetery because his helicopter was grounded by the rain. He made good by speaking at another ceremony in a cemetery the next day.

Still, before this, in the true spirit of social media heroism, Trudeau earned praise after someone dug out a video from 2017 of him commemorating the Battle of Dieppe in front of a war memorial in Ottawa, and closing his umbrella in the Canadian rain. It was wrongly presented as this weekend’s news, and the Canadian leader was contrasted with his neighbour.

In a world of short attention spans, the memory of the end of World War I is fading. Even 100-year-olds wouldn’t remember much. The BBC did an interview with the oldest woman in the country, a 112-year-old, on her memories of the war.

Meanwhile, on the rainy streets of Paris on Sunday, tourists posed for selfies with a serious-looking couple dressed in 1918 style, sporting a bleuet, the French version of the poppy, and accompanied by a helpful-looking husky and two very placid doves. It was somewhat surreal, like a peace-themed Disney World from the past.

Through it all, Macron has desperately been hoping for some gravitas on the world stage. He also wants the French to love him a little more. Elected to his position only about 18 months ago, Macron’s approval ratings are down to under 30%, and local journalists are complaining that the man who once spearheaded a popular movement was now terribly inaccessible.

Macron is also hosting the first Paris Peace Forum — “neither a summit nor a conventional international conference”. A number of international leaders (except Trump) participated in the opening programme on Sunday afternoon. The programme was printed as the doors for the forum in La Grande Halle de La Villette in the north-east of Paris opened.

A large military parade along the Champs Elysee was also planned for Sunday, but it was dropped because, diplomatically, a nationalist display of power like this would not have washed on an occasion such as this.

Still, Macron came under fire for two things, one from Trump for what the US president perceived to have been a remark by Macron about Europe building its own army to defend itself against the US, China and Russia (“Very insulting,” Trump tweeted, “but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the US subsidises greatly!”), and the other was for World War I military hero Philippe Pétain be honoured. Only problem is that Pétain went on to collaborate with Nazi Germany in World War II, yet his legacy has been a contested one, with attempts from the extreme right to “rehabilitate” his memory. There were questions over whether Macron’s suggestions could lend weight to the attempts.

Macron, opening the Paris Peace Forum on Sunday, was concerned about how history would judge today’s leadership. He asked how the pictures of today’s event at the Arc de Triomphe would be seen in the future.

Will today be a symbol of lasting peace or a last moment of unity before the world falls into more disorder?” he asked. “It depends solely on us.”

In uncertain times, it seems, history is busy changing too. DM

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