Paris Peace Forum vows ‘fightback’ against nationalist, authoritarian surge

After marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War in a show of unity on Sunday, world leaders gathered in the French capital to hear impassioned pleas for global cooperation at a “Peace Forum” shunned by US President Donald Trump.

REUTERS | French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in France, Nov. 11, 2018.

During French President Emmanuel Macron’s weeklong pilgrimage of Great War landmarks, a carefully choreographed prelude to Sunday’s Armistice Day commemorations, the presidency arranged for students to read out letters, poems and quotes from protagonists of the gruesome conflict. In the martyred village of Eparges, a pupil recited an oft-quoted line by France’s wartime leader Georges Clemenceau. “It is easier to make war than peace,” an aging Clemenceau observed on the battlefield of Verdun, months after the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front. It could have been a motto for the Paris Peace Forum that opened in the French capital on Sunday - a catchier one perhaps than the somewhat drab “Peace is linked with global governance” adopted by the organisers.

As one of the key Allied victors who made a hatchet job of negotiating a peaceful settlement after 1918, Clemenceau knew all about the difficulties of making peace. Largely because of the flaws of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Europe would be back at war just two decades later, torn apart by resentment, national rivalry and authoritarianism. Macron, who has cast himself as the champion of a liberal and cohesive Europe, believes those forces are once again threatening the continent and the wider world. In the words of its organisers, the Paris Forum is part of the “fightback” against the tide of authoritarian nationalism surging from Brasilia to Manilla.

Lessons from 1918

“A hundred years ago we were unable to produce a lasting peace, because France and Germany remained divided,” Macron told delegates gathered inside the vast steel-and-glass Grande Halle de la Villette, a former slaughterhouse that is now a culture and conference centre in northern Paris. Surrendering the podium after an unusually brief speech, the French president added that, in the spirit of reconciliation, unity and multilateralism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres would open the three-day event.

Offering a passionate plea for global cooperation, Merkel denounced the "national vaingloriousness and military arrogance" that led to the "senseless bloodshed" of two world wars. The German chancellor said the world “must not simply stand by and watch" as more conflicts continue to unfold around the world. “Isolationism didn’t work 100 years ago, how could it work in today’s interconnected world,” she asked, in a veiled dig at Donald Trump.

Merkel warned that the benefits of international cooperation, "the peaceful balancing of interests, even the European peace project -- people are calling them into question again." She added: "The concern I have is that blinkered nationalist views may gain ground once again.” Echoing her words, the UN’s Guterres spoke of "parallels" between the present day and the unstable and dangerous interwar years that dragged Europe back into global conflict.

Peace ‘Davos’

Financed by international donors and NGOs, the Paris Peace Forum aims to “bring together all actors of global governance to strengthen multilateralism and international cooperation”. Designed to come up with practical solutions to international challenges, it showcases 120 projects selected from almost a thousand applications, divided into five areas: peace and security, environment, development, new technologies and inclusive economy. All share the notion that multilateral solutions are the answer to global problems. Examples include international mechanisms to crack down on tax evasion, climate-resilient “zero-budget” programmes to help farmers in developing countries, and initiatives to help firms and states fight off cyber-attacks.

"The aim of the forum is to show that there are lots of forces in the international system -- states, NGOs, foundations, intellectuals, companies -- who believe we need a world of rules, an open world and a multilateral world," said the Forum’s chief organiser Justin Vaisse. On Monday and Tuesday, philanthropists, corporate leaders and leading figures from international institutions will debate ways to tackle global challenges such as climate change and policing the internet. Macron is hoping the forum will become an annual gathering of political leaders and civil society groups to discuss democracy -- along the same lines as the Davos meeting of business leaders in Switzerland.

Trump no-show

With its workshops and roundtable discussions devoted to global governance, climate change and regulation, it is easy to see why Trump, who has made no secret of his contempt for “unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracies” such as the United Nations, decided to skip the Paris event despite attending the Armistice Day commemorations earlier in the day. Other world leaders routinely criticised for disregarding international norms, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were present at the Forum, though it was hard to imagine them offering more than polite applause to the pleas for multilateralism.

The Paris event was conceived soon after Macron’s election victory in May 2017, which France's youthful new leader sought to portray as a sign of renewed confidence in liberal democracy and European integration following the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump’s election. But Macron is now himself on the back foot, looking increasingly isolated and weighed down by dismal ratings. And Merkel, seen as the other major bulwark against surging nationalism, has announced she will be standing aside as chancellor by 2021, adding to the sense that Europe's leading advocates of multilateralism are in retreat.

Throughout his tour of the Great War battlefields this week, Macron has repeated his warnings that the “nationalist disease” threatens to drag Europe back to the fateful divisions of the 1930s. He has cast next year’s European parliamentary elections as a reckoning between him and the populist, nationalist forces on the ascendancy around the continent. But ominously for the French president, his words have coincided with the first opinion polls showing his centrist, pro-European party slipping behind the far-right National Rally (formerly known as the National Front) of Marine Le Pen.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app