Remembering War, Looking Toward Peace: Armistice Day, 2018

November 13, 2018 at 10:23 am Leave a comment


Essoyes, Armistice Day 2018

“…Francaises, Francais, dans chacune de nos villes et dans chacun de nos villages, Francaises et Francais de toutes générations et de tous horizons, nous voila rassemblés en ce 11 novembre. Pour commémorer la victoire. Mais aussi pour célébrer la paix…”  Emmanuel Macron, président de la République

It was an emotionally intense week in France last week as the country marked the 100th year anniversary of the end of the First World War. The week began with President Emmanuel Macron taking to the road for a five-day trip through the killing fields of the war, following an itinerary that would bring him to a number of memorial sites. Some very poignant moments of the president’s visits to these sites were shared with the public on television, including his visit to the Ossuary of Douaumont, which contains the remains of 130,000 unidentified soldiers, both French and German, who perished during “the hell of Verdun.”

All along the way le president de la République (which is how the French people refer to their president, almost always) took the opportunity to talk to ordinary people in the towns and villages near these sites, and to confront their often fairly angry questions, in what is known in French as a bain de foul (a bath in the crowd), which means, basically, diving into a crowd of people and engaging with them in direct conversation. The thing that was the most extraordinary about this to me as an American watching is that a) the president does this at all (that he can take such a risk, among other things);  b) that the exchanges were as substantive and as long as they were; and c) that the media covered it so well. The first time I observed  Macron in a bain de foule was during his presidential campaign in 2017, when he went directly into a crowd of very angry workers at a Whirlpool factory in Amiens that was about to be closed. I was so impressed with the way he listened to them; the way he got them eventually to listen to him as well; and both the length and the substantive nature of the conversations he had with these workers. And the media covered it–close up and nonstop, with microphones placed so that listeners could hear every word–for nearly an hour. No cutting away for commercial breaks, either!

Of course the conversations this week were not exactly pleasant, but they were really interesting: workers, retirees, “ordinary citizens,” challenging their president on a number of issues, from the rising cost of gasoline and the falling level of purchasing power (pouvoir d’achat) to various issues of taxation and other policy matters. The citizens asked him some very pointed questions, and he gave them substantive answers which were not (however) necessarily accepted by them, and when they were accepted (often grudgingly, or skeptically), it was not without a great deal of substantive dialogue back and forth first.

None of this would be able to happen in the United States for a variety of reasons, and I found myself feeling wistfully envious about that. It is an aspect of democracy in action that we, who think ourselves as being such a paragon of democracy, just do not have access to.

Meanwhile, a great controversy erupted over the fact that the marshals of France who had presided over “the Great War” (including the infamous Marechal Pétain– who was a hero of World War I, but who was a Nazi collaborator, therefore a traitor, in World War II) would be honored at a ceremony at Les Invalides toward the end of the week. A vivid debate arose about how the legacy of such a person should be treated by historians and indeed by the general public. The bitterness of both World Wars is still acutely felt in France, the wounds are not yet healed.


Armistice Day (November 11) is always an important day in France, always solemnly and respectfully marked in every little French village and town. I have written about how it is honored in my little village before. Every year the church bells ring out at exactly 11:00. Every year the names of every single one of the war dead whose names are carved on our village’s war memorial are read, as the members of the volunteer firefighter/EMS corps shout out Mort pour la France! after each name. Every year there is a proclamation read aloud, reminding the French people what is being commemorated, how many people suffered and died (noting that it was certainly not only Frenchmen), and why. In past years this address has been from the Minister of the Armed Forces to the people. This year it was from le president de la Republique, and I have quoted from it briefly above. As for the whole of the special events surrounding this centenary, the emphasis in this message to the people of France was not on victory in war, but on its enduring and devastating effects; and on the fervent hope, and the will, to construct a lasting peace.

As the hour of 11 am struck, reenacting the moment when peace finally came to France in 1918 after four dreadful years of war, the church bells began to ring out with deep, rich, joyous tones: in our village square, in Paris, and indeed in every little village and town in France. Then the volunteer firefighters marched through the streets of the village, leading the way to the war memorial for the reading of the names. This year the children of the village were quite involved in the ceremony: several of them read aloud letters that had been written by soldiers in the trenches back home to their loved ones. One letter was quite openly bitter about the old men who sat in offices directing a conflict in which so many young men had died–needlessly. Then the children led the attendees in singing la Marseillaise; and from there we all proceeded to the cemetery where flowers were laid at the memorial in the part of the cemetery dedicated to the war dead.

Then it was back to the village square and the closing of the ceremony, after which the mayor opened the doors of the village hall and invited everyone in for a coupe de champagne. (As usual paté a choux and cookies were also served, to make sure no one’s stomach was too empty to handle the champagne.) The mayor himself, and his wife, poured the champagne and served it to those in attendance: to me a touching and fitting symbol of the meaning of the words “public service.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, more than 60 world leaders had gathered to join President Macron in marking the end of the commemoration. One particularly moving photograph shows them approaching the Arc de Triomphe in the rain, side by side: some commentators noticed that after a weekend full of the careful observance of many important details of protocol (who arrived first, who arrived last, who was seated where, and so on), for these few minutes protocol seemed to fall by the wayside, as these leaders simply walked together in a somewhat spontaneous and informal show of equality, dignity, solemnity–walking side by side together we all hope!–toward peace.

One world leader was notably missing from this part of the commemoration. (He declined to travel with the other leaders, choosing to get to the ceremony instead in his limousine, with blinds drawn). He was also absent from quite a few other important parts of the weekend and the days following as well, and he quite notably departed from France before the Peace conference began on Sunday afternoon.

That president behaved for the two days he was in France like a petulant, spoiled child, and though everyone, especially President Macron, did their best to maintain a stoic dignity in the face of it, and attempted to continue to bridge differences and promote constructive dialogue, it wasn’t easy.

I am often surprised at the lengths to which the French political analysts and commentators on the TV station I watch go to, to be diplomatic in their remarks about a most undiplomatic man. This time they remained measured and dignified in their commentary, but they were clear about what they noticed overall: that the president of France had hosted an important commemoration that had been very carefully planned to be a series of events that would focus on peace; on European unity; and on  multilateralism; and that this ungracious visitor did the best he could to turn it into a celebration of militarism, nationalism, and unilateralism.

I guess that is all I am going to say about that. It was a sorry display, and an embarrassment to many Americans abroad.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the City University of New York each summer. She is currently working on two books: A Long Way from Iowa, a literary memoir; and Demystifying the French, a cultural guide to living and traveling in France. 


Entry filed under: About Essoyes, About France. Tags: .

An interview with Lin Wenjie, recipient of the Bourse Renoir A Fond and Sad Farewell to Bernard Pharisien, Beloved Son of Essoyes

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