May pays WWI respects in France with Brexit in background

May pays WWI respects in France with Brexit in background

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is joining the leaders of Belgium and France for WWI
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. (Photo: AFP/Tolga Akmen)

PARIS: Britain's Theresa May joined French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday (Nov 9) to commemorate their countries' shared sacrifice in the First World War, while also discussing the more thorny issue of their post-Brexit relationship.

Macron, who has spent the past week touring former battlefields of eastern and northern France, met May in Albert near the Belgian border for a working lunch as pressure to reach a deal on Britain's EU exit mounts.

The two leaders then went to the nearby Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme to lay a wreath of poppies and cornflowers, the respective emblems of remembrance for Britain and France.

The imposing brick arch commemorates 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died between 1915 and 1918 in a series of battles along the Somme river, and who have no known grave.

May started the day with a visit to the Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium, where she and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel laid a wreath at the graves of the first and last soldiers killed on the Western Front.

"A century ago British forces fought side by side with our allies in Europe on the Western Front. Today in France and Belgium we reflect on our shared history, but also look ahead to our shared future, built on peace, prosperity and friendship," May said in a statement.

Yet that future has been clouded by the deep divisions over the terms of Britain's exit from the EU in less than five months.

France has taken a hard line in the negotiations, with Macron insistent that Britain should not be allowed to negotiate advantages for itself as it withdraws from the bloc.

Negotiators have been racing to try to agree the outlines of a deal that could be approved at an EU summit this month.

MULTILATERAL GOALS

Macron, whose poll ratings have fallen sharply in recent months, will be hosting dozens of leaders converging on Paris for the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

US President Donald Trump will hold talks with Macron on Saturday morning before a lunch with their spouses at the Elysee Palace.

Macron will then travel to Rethondes, the clearing in the Compiegne forest where the WWI armistice was signed between German and Allied forces, for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a hardline stance in Brexit talks
French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a hardline stance in Brexit talks. (Photo: AFP/Ben Stansall)

The ceremony is another symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany, as Rethondes was also the site imposed by Nazi Germany on the French when accepting their surrender in 1940 during World War II, the Elysee said.

On Sunday morning Macron will host dozens of world leaders, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for a remembrance ceremony at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 100 years to the day after the war ended.

Later in the day, Macron, Merkel and UN General Secretary Antonio Gutteres will join other world leaders and representatives of civil society, for a peace forum held in the northeast of Paris.

Macron, who would like the peace forum to become an annual event on the lines of the Davos economic forum, and Merkel - the first to speak at the event - will underline the importance of multilateralism in the search for peace.

It comes at a time when the United States has disrupted the Western order by taking a more unilateral stance in international affairs.

Trump is not expected to attend the forum.

But even as Macron takes the international stage, he has been dogged with domestic criticism during his tour of WWI sites this week.

At several stops he has been accosted by people complaining about high fuel costs and other grievances, and also stirred controversy by suggesting that WWI general Philippe Petain deserved to be honoured.

After being hailed as hero after WWI, Petain was named as head of the French government during World War II that collaborated with the Nazis. He was found guilty of treason afterwards.

Source: AFP/ec

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