Hollande urges French to pull together on economy in spirit of first World War effort

President launches commemoration of war with appeal to French public to overcome crisis

French president François Hollande launches France’s first World War commemorations at the Élysée Palace in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Alain Jocard/Reuters

French president François Hollande launches France’s first World War commemorations at the Élysée Palace in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Alain Jocard/Reuters


French president François Hollande yesterday launched France’s commemorations of the first World War with an appeal to the French people to pull together to overcome the economic crisis. France had been through much worse in the past, Hollande reminded his compatriots, saying: “Everything is possible through human will.”

If he cannot be the president of growth and employment, Hollande seems to have decided, he will be the president of history, which is a source of legitimacy for French leaders. In his first 18 months in office he has made more than half a dozen commemorative speeches.

The president said: “This time of memory arrives at a moment when France is asking questions of herself, about her place, her future, with the apprehension that seizes any great nation confronted with a changing world. I want to give a meaning to the act of commemoration . . . a reminder that the republic has passed through terrifying trials and always rose up again. She must be afraid of nothing.”

Before France’s leading politicians, of the left and the right, Hollande said France was “on the threshold” of two commemorations “of exceptional importance – the centenary of the first World War and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France.”

Perhaps only Britain will remember the Great War with comparable gusto. Prime minster David Cameron beat Hollande to it, announcing his plans for more than 2,000 exhibitions and events at the Imperial War Museum in October 2012. The names of each of the 430 Britons who were awarded the Victoria Cross will be engraved in paving stones in their home towns.

In Germany there will be no large-scale, national commemoration by the federal government, but rather smaller initiatives by the 16 Länder. Hollande said the commemorations must “bring us even closer to our German friends.”

German president Joachim Gauck has accepted his invitation to visit on August 3rd, 2014, the 100th anniversary of the day Germany declared war on France.

All 72 countries who participated in the first World War will be invited to join the July 14th, 2014 parade down the Champs-Élysées. Next September, France will remember the Battle of the Marne, which “saved France by stopping the offensive against Paris,” Hollande said.

Hollande linked the two World Wars, “the courage of the poilu (French soldier) who meets terror in his trench . . . the daring of the Free Frenchman who joins Gen de Gaulle in 1940”. His decision to intertwine the two commemorations has been criticised by some historians, who fear it will create confusion.

The two wars “share links and resonance but we will celebrate them distinctly, respecting their singularity and their specificity,” he said. Nationalism and extremism were on the rise, while “the European ideal seems to be dying . . . Peace is regarded with indifference,” Hollande said.

“To return to the chaos of the 20th century, to these two horrific blood-lettings, is to render justice to the European Union, to this great human adventure.”

The first World War was the worst trial ever endured by the entire French population, Mr Hollande said. It continued to exert power over the collective imagination because more than eight million Frenchmen, a fifth of the population, were called up, close to 1½ million were killed and hundreds of thousands were wounded. Every French village has a war monument. Every family has kept photographs, letters, mementoes. Hollande quoted Maurice Genevoix, a writer of the period: “What we have done is more than one could ask of men and we have done it.”

Hollande disappointed those who hoped he would use the word “rehabilitation” in relation to the 740 French soldiers executed for desertion, self-mutilation, espionage or other crimes. Instead he promised them a place in the army museum at Les Invalides.

Saying “the Great War still had a lot to teach today’s France,” Hollande called for “intransigence towards hatred, towards racism, towards all attacks on the values that make us what we are”. The remark was interpreted as a comment on recent racist attacks on the justice minister Christiane Taubira, who is black.