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Amid unity over WWI centenary, 'nationalist' Trump stands alone

Saul Loeb, AFP | Trump takes part in a ceremony at the American Cemetery of Suresnes outside Paris on November 11 in what he called the "highlight" of his trip.

US President Donald Trump’s intermittent participation in World War I Armistice ceremonies alongside other world leaders in France offered fresh evidence of a disconnect between the White House and the rest of the Western world.

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Trouble seemed to be brewing from the moment Trump landed. Choosing that moment to tweet a response to an interview French President Emmanuel Macron had given earlier in the week in which he called for the creation of a European army, Trump declared the comments “Very insulting”.

“President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”

In fact, Macron had been responding to questions about cyber security and election interference in an interview with France’s Europe 1 radio station.

"We are being targeted by attempted incursions in cyberspace and elsewhere in our democratic lives," Macron said. "We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States."

Macron went on to call for the creation of a "real European army" that would allow Europe to no longer rely on external forces like the United States for its security.

On Saturday the Elysée presidential palace attempted to clarify, saying it realised Macron's remarks "could create confusion" but emphasising: "He never said we need a European army against the United States."

A subsequent meeting between Macron and Trump appeared to smooth things over, although there was less of the glad-handing that was seen on previous visits. Macron welcomed Trump as “my friend” as both leaders sought to clarify their earlier remarks on defence and move on to common ground.

“We want a strong Europe, it’s very important to us, and whichever way we can do it the best and more efficient would be something we both want,” Trump said.

“We want to help Europe but it has to be fair. Right now the burden-sharing has been largely on the United States.”

Macron agreed that Europe should take on a larger share of the costs of NATO, concurrently with the expansion of Europe’s own defence capabilities.

Speaking in English, the French leader said: “That’s why I do believe my proposals for European defence are totally consistent with that.”

Trump’s no-show

The US president quickly sparked another controversy, however, when he missed a commemoration of US soldiers buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in Belleau, some 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Paris.

The White House announced that the cancellation was due to “inclement weather”, which prompted US officials to ground Marine One, the presidential helicopter. The president did not want his motorcade to cause traffic problems in and around the French capital, the White House said.

Critics were quick to point out that the drizzling rain and low cloud cover blanketing much of greater Paris didn’t keep other world leaders – including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as a US delegation led by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly – from attending the ceremony.

Others questioned why the White House had failed to plan for such a foreseeable contingency as rain in Paris in November.

Twitter was soon awash with photos of the other world leaders braving the rain in France as well as former US presidents giving speeches during downpours.

Later that evening, the Trumps attended a dinner for some 120 people, including dozens of heads of state, at the Musée d’Orsay art museum hosted by Macron and French First Lady Brigitte Macron.

According to Abigail Bimman, a reporter covering Trudeau’s visit for Global National TV news in Canada, Trump was more than two hours late for the event.

Thrust and parry

The weekend's missteps were not all Trump’s, however. As bells marking the moment the Armistice came into effect – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 – rang out across Paris, Macron and other world leaders were still on their way to the main centenary event at the Arc de Triomphe.

More than 60 world leaders – including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta – attended the centenary ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Sunday.

Last to arrive was Russian President Putin, who was captured approaching stony-faced Western leaders and a broadly smiling Trump.

US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11 as part of commemorations marking the WWI Armistice. Benoît Tessier, Pool/AFP

Macron spoke out against the rise of nationalism in his speech, warning that the “old demons are rising again, ready to fulfill their goal of bringing chaos and death".

In what some saw as a rebuke of Trump, who proudly declared last month that he is a “nationalist”, Macron said that ideology was incompatible with a nation’s “moral values”.

"Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Macron told the crowds gathered at the top of the Champs-Élysées. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying, 'Our interests first, no matter what happens to others,' you erase the most precious thing a nation has – the thing that makes it live, the thing that makes it great, the thing that is most important: its moral values."

Trump later described the commemoration as "very beautiful".

The conflict still known as the Great War pitted France, what was then the British Empire, Russia and the United States against a German alliance that united the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

It is remembered for its brutal trench warfare and Germany’s use of chlorine gas and mustard gas on the battlefields where almost 10 million soldiers died.

Going rogue

The divide between the US leader and his European allies was evident once again on Sunday, when Trump visited an American cemetery in Suresnes as Macron, Merkel and others attended the opening of the Paris Peace Forum, where delegates again warned against authoritarianism and called for multilateral cooperation in the pursuit of peace.

Trump gave a lengthy speech at Suresnes in which he gave thanks to those who served.

“Millions of American, French, and Allied troops had fought with the extraordinary skill and valour in one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history,” Trump said at the ceremony, which was hosted by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

“We are gathered together, at this hallowed resting place, to pay tribute to the brave Americans who gave their last breath in that mighty struggle.”

Among those in attendance were French and US military leaders, members of the US Congress as well as six veterans of World War II. Trump may have felt more in his element presiding over this commemoration than he did at preceding centenary events, where he shared the spotlight with dignitaries from across the globe.

This has been a wonderful two days we spent in France,” he said, before adding: “And this is certainly the highlight of the trip.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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