Under gray clouds and persistent drizzle, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands at a solemn ceremony in Compiègne yesterday marking the centenary of the ceasefire.
It was the first time since 1940 that leaders from both countries met at a historic location where Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander in Chief of the Western Front, signed the ceasefire agreement with Germany in a railroad car.
Yesterday, when the French and German national anthems were played, the sun broke briefly and the Chancellor put her head briefly on the President's. The two leaders laid down a wreath and unveiled a commemorative plaque to celebrate their reconciliation. Then they signed the guest book in a replica of the Foch railroad car, known as Compiègne Wagon, in which Adolf Hitler forced France to take revenge in June 1940 to sign his surrender.
"We owe it to our soldiers," Macron said afterwards. Symbolically, he and Merkel sat side by side and not like the representatives of France and Germany in the years 1918 and 1940.
After the ceremony, both leaders returned to Paris, where the French President held a dinner at the Musée d & # 39; Orsay in front of Donald Trump and many other foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, before the commemoration ceremony on Sunday in the Triumphal Arch.
The US President, who flew to the French capital on Friday, visited the American cemetery at Aisne-Marne yesterday, where American and French troops fought off the Germans in 1918, but stopped him because of the rain.
This sparked some of Trump's critics: Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, tweeted, "They died with their faces in front of the enemy, and this miserable inadequate @realDonaldTrump could not even weather the weather to gain his respect turn into The Fallen #hesnotfittorepresenthishreadercountry. "
US political commentator David Frum tweeted: "It is unbelievable that a president is traveling to France on this important anniversary – and then staying in his hotel room in front of the TV instead of personally giving his own to the Americans who gave their lives in France To show respect 100 years ago, victory has won tomorrow. "
In Compiègne, 80 kilometers northeast of Paris, Jean-Claude Tranchant, one of the French flag bearers of the ceremony, said he has marked the truce for 25 years. "I am very happy that Mrs. Merkel is here today. It is logical that she is with us for the hundredth birthday. I think everyone is happy that she is here. It is a symbol of our country and international. It's also important for the younger generation and the future, "he said.
Around 1,000 citizens were invited to the ceremony, including groups of French and German students. The 16-year-old high school student Mickaël Arlin had visited with a group of German students, the memorial sites of the First World War, including Verdun. "It helped us understand what's at stake today and helped us do more than just talk," he told French television.
In November 1918, Foch and his team, including British Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, sat in the clearing that was to be known as the clearing of the truce in a dining car that had been converted into an office. The Germans arrived on another train. After days of talks, the Germans agreed to sign the truce at 2:05 am, walked a few meters to Foch's car and signed at 5:10. It was a cold, damp morning and the 1561st day of the war and the atmosphere in the car was as cool as it was outside. When the document was signed Foch got up, but refused to shake hands with the Germans. "Eh bien, messieurs, c & est est fini. Allez"he said." "Well, gentlemen, it's done. Go.").
The Elysée said that Merkel's visit to Compiègne was "very symbolic". "It's the first time that French and German leaders have visited the site since World War II," said the Presidential Palace, suggesting that the event echoed the moment when Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President François Mitterrand joined hands in Verdun in 1984 appeared.
Born in Germany, Marius Stieghorst, Artistic Director of the Orléans Symphonic Orchestra, composed a "Hymn to the Peace", which will be performed during the commemorative events on the weekend.
"The Great War was above all a crash of sound, the sound of the shells, for example … many soldiers died because they did not hear the sounds," Stieghorst said in an interview.
He described his feelings when he found a record of the minutes before and after the truce. "What we have is one of the great perversions of war. We hear the "normal" war two minutes earlier. Everyone knew that the war would end, but you hear the exchange. One minute before, there is something unimaginable; Everyone, the Americans, Germans, Englishmen and Frenchmen began like madmen against the enemy. We hear the biggest chaos you can imagine. I do not want to know how many soldiers died in the last minute of the Great War and knew that peace would come in a minute. That moved me a lot. At this moment we did an orchestral improvisation to transform this perversity. "
Previously, Macron and Trump had agreed in Paris on the need for further European defense spending. The meeting was expected to be tense after the US president tweeted that Macron's call for a European army to defend against the Chinese, Russians and Americans was "insulting". As the two men met on the stairs of the Elysée, both gave the photographers a thumbs up and Macron called Trump "my good friend".
Afterwards Macron said the meeting was "very constructive". The Elysée insisted that Trump had misunderstood Macron's comments.