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Macron should have honoured WW1 fallen at Amiens

It is hard to think of a more evocative symbol of what Emmanuel Macron is meant to stand for than Amiens.

His home city is a testament to revival: a place frequently destroyed by horrific wars but now, thanks to the European Union, peaceful and productive.

How strange then that the President of France chose to ignore a long-planned commemoration of its savage history, especially as the 100th anniversary of the November 11, 1918 Armistice approaches.

Instead of joining dignitaries such as Theresa May and Prince William in remembering the Battle of Amiens, which took place in August of that year, he remained sunbathing at the Brégançon Fort, his presidential holiday home on the Riviera.

Staying away from the moving service in Notre-Dame Cathedral in the capital of the Somme department was an insult to the thousands killed and wounded at the start of the so-called 100 Days offensive that led to the end of the First World War.

Macron missed Mrs May reading from the memoires of her wartime predecessor David Lloyd George, and former German President Joachim Gauck reciting After A Bad Dream 1918, by Gerrit Engelke – the Hanover poet killed on the Western Front and now frequently compared to Wilfred Owen.

Beyond offering the chance to perform his own solemn act of remembrance, Macron’s presence would have reinforced his frequent rhetoric about the crucial need for unity between neighbours.

I spoke to him about Amiens at length during his election campaign last year and he said growing up in such a war-torn region added a “never again” element to his thinking. He described the eerie mass cemeteries, and the now fertile farmland where young men were gassed, mutilated, and ultimately massacred in their thousands.

This cannon fodder included the brightest and the best from the great European powers, but also huge numbers from Empire countries such as Algeria and India.

There was nothing new about the disaster either: there was a ferocious Battle of Amiens in 1870 when Prussian forces invaded, forcing the French out of the city.

As well as turning into a military garrison and being bombed constantly during the 1914-18 War, it was overrun by German Panzers in 1940.

Reconstruction programmes barely got going before more historic streets were destroyed, with the beautiful 13th century Cathedral being among the few buildings left unscathed. 

In turn there has been no war between any of the 28 European Union member states since 1945, and certainly not France and Germany.

Macron was born in a town nowadays better known for its tourist trade than its strategic position on military maps.

He is the first French head of state in post-war history to have escaped any kind of national service, least of all with the army, airforce or navy.

Instead he has been able to concentrate on building up a career championing the EU mantras of freedom of goods, services, labour and capital.

He once called Brexit a “crime”, and still displays a studied indifference to the problems Britain is encountering as it tries to extract itself from the EU.

Macron wants to reform the bloc from within, while highlighting the importance of the Pax Europaea, the 73 years and counting of stability that contributed to the EU winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.   

The President is particularly appalled by the kind of xenophobia, and indeed outright racist violence, that has accompanied a rise in anti-Europe sentiment.

“Nationalism is war,” he told Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival for the presidency during a live TV debate. “I know it, I come from a region that is full of graveyards.”

Le Pen, ever the populist with no interest in history unless it fits in with her hateful manifesto, replied: “You shouldn’t pretend to be something new when you dredge up boring old arguments that are at least 50 years old.”

Macron should have been proud at being on the end of such a retort. Those who reminisce about the darkness of the past are best qualified to deal with the present, and that’s why his duty was to honour the fallen in Amiens.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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