Macron calls for ‘real’ European army at start of war centenary tour

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Macron calls for ‘real’ European army at start of war centenary tour

Emmanuel Macron has used the first world war armistice centenary commemorations to call for a “real” European army, warning that rising nationalism and populism threaten the fragile peace on the continent.

“We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America,” Macron said as he visited the sites of the western front battlefields in northern France on Tuesday.

Macron has begun a rare week-long memorial tour of north-east France, calling at villages and small towns that a century ago witnessed the bloodshed of the war and that are now struggling against deindustrialisation and unemployment.

“When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty which was formed after the 1980s Euromissile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security,” he said in a radio interview to mark 100 years since the end of hostilities. “Peace in Europe is precarious,” he said.

The tour culminates on Sunday when Macron hosts Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and dozens of other heads of state at an armistice commemoration in Paris followed by an international “peace conference”.

Arriving in Verdun, the site of one of the longest and most savagely fought battles of the war, Macron honoured the local people who fought and died in the trenches. He has argued that modern French society more than ever needs to hail “everyday heroes” such as these.

The tour is also aimed at addressing his falling personal popularity ratings, which have reached a new low of less than 30%.

An Ifop survey published on Sunday showed that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party – formerly Front National – had moved ahead of Macron’s centrists for the first time. Far-right and anti-EU parties had combined support of 30%, up from 25% at the end of the summer.

Macron, who came to power last year by defeating Le Pen and who has promised to save the EU by championing greater integration, intends to style himself as a leader of progressives against hardline nationalism in the European elections next spring.

Although his party firmly controls the French parliament, giving him free rein to implement his pro-business manifesto and overhaul labour and the welfare state, he is struggling to shake off his image as a member of the metropolitan elite, cut off from peripheral towns and villages such as those on the centenary trail in the north-east.

What was once seen as Macron’s straight-talking is now criticised as arrogance. Nationwide protests and blockades against higher fuel prices scheduled for later this month have added to the government’s difficulties.

Macron stopped outside Verdun town hall to talk to local residents, some of whom complained that he was letting down pensioners, students and workers. “Do you feel the malaise in France?” shouted a retired factory worker. “I hear you, I respect you,” Macron said.

The president called for pragmatism, saying he could not offer an immediate fix for what he argued was nearly 40 years of drift. He said France’s problem with mass unemployment was unique in Europe and he vowed to transform the work, welfare and pensions system. “I know what’s being said. I know there is impatience and anger,” he said.

Residents shrugged. Aldo, 59, who had worked as a carpenter since the age of 16 but was now on disability allowance, said he had voted for Le Pen. “Macron’s a former banker, he only listens to the rich,” he said. “At the next election I don’t think I’ll bother to vote at all.”

Macron is likely to warn Trump, Putin and other leaders on Sunday that multilateralism and cooperation between nations must be protected in what he calls a new era of isolationism and populism akin to that of the 1930s.

“I am struck by similarities between the times we live in and those between the two world wars,” he told a French newspaper last week, adding that nationalism was a “leprosy” spreading worldwide.

Trump, who greatly appreciated attending France’s vast Bastille Day military parade in Paris last summer, might have expected military fanfare. But the armistice centenary in France has deliberately focused on civilians, not the military – it is not a celebration of victory but a focus on the need for peace, largely because of the bloodshed of the second world war that followed so soon after.

Macron also used his armistice trip to address a painful part of French colonial history by paying tribute to African troops who fought in France in the war. These soldiers, often referred to as Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen), were in fact drawn from all over west Africa and were seen as never having been given the prominence they deserved in French history books.

Macron was to be joined in the north-east city of Reims by the Malian president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, whose great-grandfather fought and died in the battle of Verdun and whose body was never found.

France deployed an estimated 200,000 black troops in the war. Mor Ndao, a history professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, told AFP that France had never “recognised sufficiently the role and importance of the tirailleurs”.

He said: “Their treatment has been unequal compared to their French and European brothers in arms.”

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