December 17, 2018

Letter From Paris: Thoughts on an Historic Day of Respectful Remembrance … and Distressing Disrespect

Nicole Prévost Logan

Editor’s Note:  We are delighted to welcome back Nicole Prévost Logan after her traditional break from writing while she summers in Essex, Conn.  She has now returned to Paris just in time for the centennial celebrations of the end of World War I, on which she provides an insightful commentary in this column.

Paris was the center of the world on November 11 – the 100-year anniversary of the Armistice of World War I.  Struggling against a strong wind and in pouring rain, 70 world leaders walked toward the Arc de Triomphe on a deserted Avenue des Champs Elysées – a striking image on an historical day.

The ceremony, taking place by the tomb of the unknown soldier, was magnificently choreographed by the French president Emmanuel Macron.  It was solemn and sober.  Not intended to be a show of triumphalism, it did not include a military parade.

The president only reviewed only some of the elite military academies: students from Ecole polytechnique, wearing bicornes (two-pointed hats), and from St Cyr (equivalent to West Point) with their emblematic “casoars” of red and white feathers, as well as students from the air force and naval academies.  The ceremony was to be essentially both an homage to the millions who died and a reminder of the importance of reconciliation and peace.

The timing of the proceedings was synchronized to the minute: at 11 o’clock  all the bells of France tolled, the five Mirages of the patrouille de France flew twice over the Place de l’Etoile in impeccable formation leaving tricolor strands of smoke in the sky.  The sounds of Sonnerie aux Morts (The Last Post) and other bugle and drums pieces added their somber touch. 

Whereas most of the foreign leaders had ridden busses from the Palais de l’ Elysée to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the American and Russian presidents as well as the Israeli prime minister were driven all the way in their cars for security reasons.  The honorable guests gathered under the transparent awning and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Finally the armored car of Donald Trump, in a convoy of 53 vehicles carrying 700 security agents and US government officials, appeared at the bottom of the Champs Elysées.  The American president had a chance for a photo op alone in front of the other heads of State.  

The seating on the first row must have ben a nightmare for the protocol people.  Trudeau was far enough from Trump and protected from him by the King of Morocco and his son.  Trump was next to Angela Merkel.  A few minutes later Vladimir Putin arrived (according to a Russian radio commentator, he had been kept in his car for 20 minutes until the Trumps were settled.)  He took his place next to Brigitte Macron.  Trump broke into a broad smile for the first and only time of the weekend as he greeted Putin.

The visit of the American president to France had started on a sour note.  He distorted what Macron had said  during his November 10 interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.  In a furious tweet, he said that he found the French president’s comment about building an independent European military force “insulting.”  In fact, Macron had never used the words “against the US.”

A cultural and emotional program started with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Sarabande of the Suite No.5 in C minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and ended with the 17-minute long Ravel Bolero, performed by the European Union Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.  A group of young people of all nationalities read excerpts form diaries written by a few French poilus (soldiers) among the 1.4 million killed during the Great War.  The message was the transmission of memory through the future generations.

Macron was born in Amiens, a provincial town in the heart of the devastated regions of France during World War I.  His four great-grandfathers fought there.  In his speech, the French president spoke with emotion of the battlefields he visited during the seven days prior to the centennial, saying, “I walked on the grey earth where so many soldiers were buried, which is today covered by innocent nature.” 

One of the highly symbolic moments of that week was in the clearing of Rethondes when Merkel (the first time ever for a German chancellor) and Macron sat side by side in the train car where the armistice was signed  November 11, 1918.

In the second part of his speech Macron, portrayed himself as a patriot.  Nationalism, he said, has nothing to do with patriotism and is, in fact, its betrayal.  Withdrawal within one’s borders is harmful for the rest of the world, he added.  The anger of Trump was becoming increasingly tangible as he heard those words, his face frozen in a  pouting expression.  One might describe the speech as outright provocation, but it was well-deserved .

The chasm between Trump and Macron grew deeper in the afternoon.  A Peace Forum had been scheduled at La Villette for business people, NGOs, associations and also political leaders, with the objective of  promoting multilateralism.  The American president chose not to attend.

TV viewers were treated to a surreal split screen: on one side Trump speaking at the American cemetery of Suresnes, near Paris, to honor some of the 116,000 Americans who fell during the Great War and on the other, Merkel giving the inaugural speech at the Forum, in which she supported Macron’s vision of an European army to be created in the distant future.

The American president intensified his flurry of angry tweets after his return to the US and threatened France with increased taxes on its wine exports.  In a November 15 interview held on the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the French president commented: ‘I do not answer tweets. I believe in mutual respect between allies.’

How unfortunate that such a solemn commemoration was hijacked by low-level diatribe.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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