Leaders highlight changed relations ahead of WWI centennial
PARIS — Traveling from across the world to monuments honoring soldiers who fell 100 years ago, victors and vanquished alike marked those sacrifices Saturday ahead of Armistice Day and assessed alliances that have been redrawn dramatically since the dark days of World War I.
World leaders flocked to Paris on Saturday, many visiting memorials and battlefields that had particular meaning for their countries’ histories.
U.S. President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit the cemetery where the dead from the breakthrough Battle of Belleau Wood are buried. He later canceled due to rain.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau visited the site of a surprising Canadian victory earlier in the day.
The leaders of former enemies France and Germany made a trip together to the site north of Paris where the defeated Germans and the Allies signed the agreement that ended the 1914-18 war. In an intimate gesture that underscored their countries’ current roles as guarantors of peace in Europe, the two leaders held their heads together in friendship.
After Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly snuggled her head into the neck of French President Emmanuel Macron, the two went inside a replica of the train car where the armistice was reached and put their names in a guestbook. Macron then took Merkel’s hand in his, again highlighting the changes on the continent where two world wars were fought in the 20th century.
“Our Europe has been at peace for 73 years. There is no precedent for it, and it is at peace because we willed it and first and foremost, because Germany and France wanted it,” he said.
Merkel was equally convinced of the power their friendship exudes.
“The will is there, and I say this for Germany with full conviction, to do everything to achieve a more peaceful order in the world even though we know we have very, very much work still ahead of us,” she said.
In contrast to this show of affection was a meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a ceremony Saturday in Compiegne, north of Paris, at the spot where the armistice that ended World War I was signed. between Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier Saturday, a somewhat awkward interaction in which the two discussed Macron’s proposal to expand European armies, a project Trump had tweeted Friday night he found “very insulting.”
Calling Trump “my good friend,” Macron proclaimed “great solidarity” between the two nations and said the leaders will discuss a litany of issues during their one-on-one meeting, including Iran, Syria, Yemen, trade and climate change.
Trump reciprocated Macron’s warm tone, telling the French leader that we “have become very good friends” and that the two countries “have much in common in many ways.”
Even as their words aimed to gloss over their differences, their body language betrayed the growing tensions.
During the meeting, the U.S. president appeared subdued, almost sullen, as Macron tried to mask growing tensions between them. When Macron tried to pat Trump’s thigh, the American ignored him and didn’t acknowledge the touch or reciprocate it — a marked difference from their demonstrative power-grip handshakes and back slaps during previous meetings.
After his meeting with Macron, Trump had been scheduled to head to the U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron conclude a meeting in Paris on Saturday. battlefield of Belleau Wood, 55 miles northeast of the capital, where U.S. troops had their breakthrough battle by stopping a German push for Paris shortly after entering the war in 1917.
However, Trump canceled his visit because of bad weather and immediately triggered criticism.
“It’s incredible that a president would travel to France for this significant anniversary — and then remain in his hotel room watching TV rather than pay in person his respects to the Americans who gave their lives in France for the victory gained 100 years ago tomorrow,” David Frum, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, tweeted.
The White House sent a delegation of Chief of Staff John Kelly and Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staffin Trump’s place.
Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said the White House should have had a fallback plan for the president.
“There is always a rain option. Always,” Rhodes said.
It was not completely clear why the Trumps were unable to attend. The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the Secret Service.
Trump is scheduled to visit a different U.S. cemetery close to Paris on Sunday.
At dawn Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at Vimy Ridge, the battlefield in northern France where Canada found its sense of self when it defeated German opposition against the odds.
Standing amid the white headstones against an ashen sky, Trudeau addressed the fallen, saying what Canada has achieved in the past century has been “a history built on your sacrifice. You stand for the values on which Canada was built.”
In southern Belgium’s Mons, Canadians were also lauding George Price, the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the war when he was shot by a German sniper two minutes before the armistice took effect.
All these leaders and dozens of others are staying in Paris and will return there for the centennial celebration Sunday, again making the city a diplomatic hub and the center of the globe’s attention, much like it was in 1914 when Germany sought to take it and the Allies successfully defended it.
In the four years of fighting, remembered for brutal trench warfare and the first use of gas, France, the British empire, Russia and the United States had the main armies opposing a German-led coalition that also included the AustroHungarian and Ottoman empires.
Almost 10 million soldiers died. France lost 1.4 million and Germany 2 million.
Across the line that once marked the Western Front, leaders lauded the courage of soldiers who were killed during the unprecedented slaughter, before converging on Paris for a dinner.
At the dinner, Macron warned world leaders against taking peace for granted, saying “we will talk about this peace that our predecessors tried to construct 100 years ago but failed to preserve, because 20 years later a new war broke out.”
The armistice entered into force on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and on Sunday 69 world leaders will commemorate the centennial of the event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, underneath the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris.