Paris: On November 7, 1918, when Corporal Pierre Sellier sounded the ceasefire on his bugle, around 10 o’clock in the morning, there were many who could not believe it. Then, the soldiers slowly emerged from their positions, while, farther and farther down the lines, the same bugles repeated the call for ceasefire, and then, the church bells spread the news all over the country.
I know old demons are now resurfacing: Emmanuel Macron
On November 11, 1918, at eleven o’clock in the morning, a hundred years ago to the day, at this very hour in Paris and all over France, the bugles sounded and the bells of all the churches rang out.
Armistice had come
It was the end of four long and terrible years of deadly fighting. The armistice, however, was not peace. And in the East, for several years, horrifying battles continued.
Here, on the same day, the French and their Allies celebrated their victory. They had fought for their homeland and for freedom. For this, they had accepted all manner of sacrifices and sufferings. They had experienced a hell that no one can imagine.
We should take a moment to recall this immense procession of combatants, soldiers from the metropolis and the empire, legionaries, and Garibaldians, marching with foreigners from all over the world.
And all the others, all the others who are ours, rather to whom we belong, and whose names we can read on each monument, from the sun-drenched heights of Corsica to the valleys of the Alps, from Sologne to the Vosges, from the Pointe du Raz to the Spanish border. Yes, one France, rural and urban, bourgeois, aristocratic and popular, from all persuasions, where the priest and the anticlerical suffered side by side, and whose heroism and pain created us.
During these four years, Europe teetered on the brink of suicide. Humanity sank into the hideous labyrinth of merciless killings, in a hell that swallowed up all the fighters, regardless of their side, regardless of their nationality.
From the very next day of the armistice began the sombre count of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, the missing. Here, in France, as well as in each country, the families waited in vain for months for the return of a father, a brother, a husband, a fiancé, and among these absent, were also admirable women engaged alongside the combatants.
10 million dead. 6 million injured and maimed. 3 million widows. 6 million orphans. Millions of civilian victims. One billion shells fired on the soil of France alone.
The world discovered the extent of wounds that the zeal of fighting had obscured. To the tears of the dying, succeeded those of the survivors. Because the whole world had come to fight on France’s soil. Young men from all provinces and overseas territories, young men from Africa, the Pacific, the Americas, and Asia came to die – far from their families, in villages whose names they did not even know. Millions of witnesses from all nations recounted the horror of the fighting; the stench of the trenches; the desolation of the battlefields; the cries of the wounded in the night; the destruction of a flourishing countryside where only the charred silhouette of trees remained. Many of those who returned had lost their youth, their ideals, their zest for life. Many were disfigured, blind, amputated. Winners and losers then plunged for a long time in the same grief.
1918 – that was a hundred years ago. It seems distant. And yet, it was yesterday!
Madness of men
I have traversed the lands of France where the fiercest battles took place. In these rural stretches of my country, I have seen the still bleak and barren lands of the battlefields. I have seen the devastated villages that had no inhabitants left to rebuild them, and whose every stone is a testament to the madness of men.
I have seen on our monuments the litany of names of Frenchmen alongside the names of foreigners who died under the French sun. I have seen the corpses of our soldiers buried under a nature once again innocent, as I had seen in mass graves, the mingled bones of German soldiers and French soldiers, who during an icy winter had killed each other for a few metres of land.
The traces of this war have never been obliterated—neither in the lands of France, nor in those of Europe and the Middle East, nor in the memory of men across the world.
Let us remember! Let us not forget! For the memory of these sacrifices exhorts us to be worthy of those who died for us, so that we might live free!
Let us remember: let us not take away what was pure, ideal, and noble; the principles of patriotism of our elders. This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France as the bearer of universal values, was, in those dark hours, exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people who look only at their own interests. For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying “our interests first, whatever happens to the others,” you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it alive, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.
It is these values and these virtues that have sustained those we honour today, those who sacrificed themselves in the battles in which the nation and democracy had involved them. It is these values, these virtues that were their strength because they guided their hearts.
The lesson of the Great War cannot be that of the resentment of one people against another. It is a deeply-rooted lesson that compels one to think about the future and to think about the essential.
Since 1918, our predecessors have tried to build peace. They conceived the initial international co-operation, they dismantled empires, recognized many nations and redrew borders; they even dreamed of a political Europe.
Spirit of revenge
But humiliation, the spirit of revenge, economic and moral crises have fuelled the rise of nationalism and totalitarianism. Twenty years later, war came once again to ravage the roads of peace.
Here, today, peoples of the whole world, on this sacred tombstone, the sepulchre of our Unknown Soldier, see how many of your leaders have gathered!
Each of them leads, in turn, their long cohort of fighters and martyrs from their people. Each of them is the face of the hope for which an entire generation of youths accepted to die, of a world finally restored to peace, a world in which friendship between peoples prevails over combative passions, a world where men’s words must ring louder than the clash of arms, where the spirit of conciliation prevails over the temptation of cynicism, where forums allow the enemies of yesterday to engage in dialogue and cement a common understanding, the pledge of a harmony finally possible.
This, on our continent, is called the friendship forged between Germany and France and this desire to build a foundation of common ambitions. It is called the European Union, a union freely agreed on, unprecedented in history, delivering us from our civil wars. It is called the United Nations Organisation, guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to protect the common goods of a world whose destiny is inextricably linked and which has learned from the painful failures of the League of Nations as well as from the Treaty of Versailles. It is this certainty that the worst is never assured as long as there are men and women of goodwill. Let us relentlessly, unashamedly, fearlessly, be these women and men of goodwill!
I know that the old demons are resurfacing, ready to carry out their work of chaos and death. New ideologies are manipulating religions, advocating a contagious obscurantism. History sometimes threatens to take its tragic course again and compromise our legacy of peace, which we believed to have conclusively sealed with the blood of our ancestors.
May this anniversary be the day when eternal fidelity to our dead is renewed! Let us once again take the oath of nations to place peace above all, for we know its price, Its weight, Its exacting demands.
All of us, political leaders, we must on November 11, 2018, reaffirm before our peoples our real, immense responsibility, that of passing on to our children the world that previous generations have dreamed of.
Let us count our hopes instead of opposing our fears. Together, we can ward off the spectre of global warming, poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, ignorance that threatens us. We have started this fight and we can win it: let’s continue it because victory is possible.
Together, we can break with the new “betrayal of the intellectuals” that is at work, the one that feeds the untruths, accepts the injustices that undermine our peoples, fuels the extremes and contemporary obscurantism.
Together, we can bring about the extraordinary blossoming of science, art, trade, education, and medicine that I see stirring everywhere in the world. Because, if we want it, our world is at the dawn of a new epoch, of a civilization bearing the ambitions and faculties of man to the loftiest heights. To ruin this hope by a fascination for withdrawal, violence, and domination would be an error for which future generations would rightly ascribe historical responsibility on us. Here, today, let us face the judgment of the future with dignity. France knows what she owes to her fighters and all the fighters who came from across the world. She bows to their greatness. France respectfully and solemnly salutes the dead of the other nations that she had once fought against. She stands by their side.
“It is but in vain that our feet detach themselves from the soil that holds the dead,” wrote the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
May the tombs in which they rest flourish with the certainty that a better world is possible if we so wish, if we so decide, if we so build, if we so demand with all our soul.
On this November 11, 2018, one hundred years after a massacre whose scar is still visible on the face of the world, I thank you for this gathering and fraternity.
May this gathering not be only for a day. This fraternity, my friends, in fact, urges us to conduct side-by-side the only worthy fight: the fight for peace, the fight for a better world.
Long live peace between peoples and between States!
Long live the free nations of the world!
Long live the friendship between peoples!
Long live France!