May 8, 2014

Ambiguous Commemoration

Today is the day the French call simply “le 8 Mai” (the 8th of May) -- in remembrance of the day which ended the European part of World War II. This has always been an ambiguous commemoration. World War I stopped abruptly on November 11th 1918 but World War II had many endings. D-Day was June 6th 1944. Paris was liberated two months later. Hitler committed suicide on April 30th 1945 after which German forces in Denmark and the Netherlands surrendered on May 4th. The two page document signed in Reims on May 7th 1945 stated that hostilities would cease on May 8th. Stalin wanted his own ceremony in Berlin after that so for the Russians May 9th is the official end of the War.
France was clear that the war ended on May 8th but ambiguous over how to mark the occasion. On the first anniversary, the government decided to observe the day on the Sunday after May 8th so as not to inhibit reconstruction efforts. In 1951, veterans groups succeeded in having May 8th declared a public holiday. Seven years later, Charles de Gaulle became president, cancelled the holiday and decreed that the commemoration should again take place on the Sunday after May 8th. In 1965, the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou declared a holiday for that year only. Ten years later, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing decided that in the interests of Franco-German friendship, the day should no longer even be commemorated. When François Mittérand became president in 1981, he reinstituted both the public holiday and the commemoration of the end of World War II. This has remained true ever since.
Different communities have short ceremonies involving the laying of wreaths and the singing of le Chant des partisans -- a song written in 1943 in England by a Russian woman. Soon translated, it was adopted by the French resistants as their own. These ceremonies are, alas, attended by dwindling crowds. 

Often, I watch the Paris ceremony on TV. This year, I decided to participate and experienced another ambiguity. Crowd control and security measures have rendered the notion of a community coming together to remember all but impossible. The ceremony is attended by a few invited guests and hardy souls willing to stake out a spot before barriers and police block further access.
I am in neither category

. So today, I saw proof that a major TV station was doing its job.

I saw journalists from another TV station looking for people to interview.

Had I stayed at home, I could have seen François Hollande greeting Charles de Gaulle’s grandson before laying a wreath at the foot of the great man’s statue at one end of the Champs Elysées.

I could also have seen him greet other important people at the Arc de Triomphe before relighting the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Instead I saw the gathering of the Garde Républicaine near the Place de la Concorde.

I was impressed at the rapid cleanup of what horses leave behind

and enjoyed a view that they never show on television.

After a long walk and conversations with a number of friendly policemen and women as I tried to find an unblocked path forward, I finally did get to see the lonely wreath at the foot of de Gaulle’s statue after the ceremonial party had departed.

I continued up the Champs Elysées almost alone, greeting various policemen whose main task at that time was explaining to dazed tourists how and when they would be able to cross the street.
There were more people near the Arc de Triomphe. After having my purse and bag searched, I was able to join them to wait for the ceremony to end. We could faintly hear music but mostly saw pigeons enjoying their freedom and snacking on what the scrubbing trucks had apparently not cleared

Our wait was not in vain. We did at last see the president. Almost.


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