PARIS -- Under the Arc de Triomphe, in rain so heavy that it was almost a cliché, French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday delivered a particularly dramatic solo performance – a eulogy to the shaky liberal world order.
More than 60 world leaders came to Paris for the ceremony marking 100 years since the end of World War I. They stood like mere extras as Macron made a lengthy speech decrying the rise of the new nationalism and in support of the mutual global-liberal values that had largely shaped perceptions at the end of the two world wars.
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism; nationalism is a betrayal of it,” Macron said with great pathos. “By saying ‘we put ourselves first and the others don’t matter,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which gives it life, that which makes it great, and that which is most important: Its moral values."
“I know, the old demons are resurging, ready to finish off the work of chaos and death. New ideologies manipulate religions, push a contagious obscurantism. Sometimes, history threatens to retake its tragic course and threaten our heritage of peace that we believed we had achieved with our ancestors’ blood. This anniversary day is therefore the day when we renew our loyalty to our dead! Let’s again renew the oath of nations to put make peace our highest priority, because we understand the price. We know its importance. We know what it requires.”
Among those listening with serious faces to the simultaneous translation from the French, was U.S. President Donald Trump - the man who made his slogan “America first,” to which Macron was referring. Alongside him were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, neither of them pillars of the liberal order whose return Macron was urging. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also among those watching the speech from the front row.
What did these leaders, particularly Trump, who proudly call themselves nationalists and who distance their countries from international forums and agreements, think of the French manifesto? What about those leaders who support the breakup of the European Union, who want to distance it from those liberal values on which it was established because of the fierce argument over security threats and immigration? How many of them identified with Macron’s message for renewed global unity?
Does Macron have any obvious partners for this objective other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended in what is her last term as Europe’s leader? Will Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, another participant, be enough to battle for the identity of the world? The gloomy ceremony turned from a symbolic eulogy for World War I’s Unknown Soldier buried at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe, into a kind of eulogy for the universal and multilateral lessons of the war.
A particularly melancholy photo of Macron and Merkel taken Saturday at a different memorial ceremony in France, somewhat reflected their isolation. In the photo they look small and distant, the color of their coats blending, holding each other at the edge of what looks like an abyss. “United,” tweeted Macron over the photo.
In true French tradition, Macron’s speech included literary references, the kind you’d be hard-pressed to find in a Trump speech, say. Another monument to the vanishing elitism of Western culture.
It seems that the quantity of words written this year about the crisis of Western liberal values – if these ever really existed, also a matter of dispute – is endless. But if one moment can encapsulate this debate, the ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe was it. Macron’s speech will not change the trend. Perhaps it will be analyzed by future experts looking to document the processes humanity had undergone in the 100 years following World War I. They will know by then - like those who called this war the “first” World War from the hindsight of a "second" - what the results of the current trend will be. A third world tragedy or a new world order, perhaps a conservative one this time.
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