At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — precisely 100 years after fighting halted in the first world war — leaders from 70 nations gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to remember the millions who died in the conflict.
French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders from the majority of countries that sent troops or workers to the Western Front, met at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the arch to light the eternal flame that is rekindled every night at the memorial engraved with the words: “Here rests a French soldier who died for the nation.”
In his address Macron spoke about the sacrifices of lives made a century ago in the four years of carnage in Europe. He said “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were the last to arrive.
The ceremony, under rainy skies, also features cellist Yo-Yo Ma, singer Angelique Kidjo of the African nation of Benin and a bugler to break the minute of silence for remembrance.
No soldier from the war is known to still be alive but their voices are present through high school students here reading their letters written at the front on this day a century ago.
U.S. Army Capt. Charles Normington wrote that “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. There is nowhere on earth I would rather be.”
“Finally, the whir of the shells and the whistling of the bullets are over,” wrote French infantryman Alfred Roumiguieres.
“Today has been perfectly wonderful,” Charles Neville, a British officer, wrote to his parents. “We got news of the armistice at 9:30 this morning.”
The war’s four years of carnage was intended – as the British and Americans idealistically insisted — to be the “war to end all wars.” But little more than 20 years later global conflict would again erupt with casualties on an unprecedented scale.
Trump cancels cemetery visit
Trump canceled a visit to an American cemetery outside Paris Saturday.
A White House statement said the president’s visit was canceled because of scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.
An American delegation led by Chief of Staff General John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford did visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial under gray skies and drizzle, paying respect to the nearly 2,300 war dead buried there.
The area was the site of the Battle of Belleau Wood in June of 1918. In addition to the 2,288 graves of American soldiers, the cemetery contains a memorial to 1,060 service members who went missing in action.
Trump was criticized on social media for remaining in Paris during the afternoon with no other scheduled events, as images were broadcast of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel holding hands at the site in the Compiegne Forest, north of the capital, where allies and defeated Germans signed the agreement that ended the war.
Some former U.S. officials suggested Trump could have visited the cemetery if he really desired.
“There is always a rain option. Always,” wrote on Twitter Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, who explained he helped plan such foreign visits during the two terms of Trump’s predecessor.
Earlier Saturday, Trump and Macron discussed their differences about European security. The meeting came soon after Donald Trump arrived in Paris and criticized his host via Twitter, calling Macron’s support for a European military force “very insulting.”
In the touchdown tweet, Trump suggested Europe first pay “its fair share” of NATO before contemplating a Europe-wide force.
As they began their meeting Saturday morning at the Elysee Palace, the U.S. president again called for better burden sharing for the cost of defending Europe.
“We want a strong Europe,” said Trump.
Macron replied: “I do believe we need more European capacities, more European defense.”
Trump and Macron avoided any criticism of each other in front of the media.
Macron, during a visit to the World War One Western Front at Verdun, told Europe 1 radio that in face of a revived threat from Moscow that Europe needed to “defend itself better alone” and Europeans cannot protect themselves without a “true European army.”
Macron, in the interview, also blasted Trump’s recent announcement that Washington will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) limiting nuclear weapons that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to.
The “main victim” of the withdrawal, Macron argued, is “Europe and its security.”
French officials, however, say — without elaborating — there was a misunderstanding by Trump about Macron’s comments, noting the U.S. president told his French counterpart in their Saturday meeting: “I think we are much closer than it seems.”