A series of international leaders used a global commemoration of the end of the First World War to warn about the risk politicians who call themselves nationalists pose to a fragile peace, in a message aimed at the American president.
What started with the French president saying that nationalist leaders threaten to erase a nation’s moral values by putting their own interests first regardless of the effects on others, ended with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying voters must have faith in democratic institutions or they will turn to populism for easy answers and scapegoats.
U.S. President Donald Trump in recent weeks described himself as a nationalist and has frequently sparred with the media, whom he has labelled as “fake news” and the enemy of the people — both of which were on display last week in a free-wheeling press conference after the U.S. midterm elections.
Speaking at a peace forum organized by French President Emmanuel Macron, Trudeau said attacks on the press are part of a concerted political effort to maintain power and staunch any criticism.
“Attacks on the media are not just about getting your preferred political candidate elected, for example, they are about increasing the level of cynicism that citizens have towards all authorities, towards all of the institutions that are there to protect us as citizens,” Trudeau said to a crowd of about 150 people.
“When people feel their institutions can’t protect them, they look for easy answers in populism, in nationalism, in closing borders, in shutting down trade, in xenophobia.”
Macron, Trudeau and other leaders came to Paris hoping to use the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War to renew calls to quash festering tensions across the globe.
Macron warned how fragile peace can be in an age where the tensions that gave rise to four years of bloody battle, costing millions of lives, appear to be festering again. He told the assembled masses that the “traces of this war never went away.”
He urged the leaders present to promise their peoples that the resurgent “old demons” would not be able to return, sowing “chaos and death.”
Though Trump sat mostly stone-faced as he listened to Macron’s words, he had left by the time Trudeau began to speak.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an opening speech at the peace forum, spoke about how lack of communication and an unwillingness to compromise can have dire consequences for countries.
“There is a general sense and desire among many countries, including Canada to do whatever is possible to sustain the institutions of the international order and practical, multilateral co-operation. And so you see that in Canada, you see that in Germany,” said Roland Paris, Trudeau’s former foreign adviser.
“Macron (is) essentially making that point: that we can sustain co-operation, we must sustain co-operation.”
Trudeau, who is on a 10-day trip across Europe and Asia, will come face-to-face with three of the nations sowing tension: Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trudeau sat beside Putin and the pair briefly chatted at the opening session of Macron’s peace summit on Sunday. Trudeau acknowledged the Russian people’s sacrifices through the two World Wars and said it was important to have Russian representation in Paris to talk about peace, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Earlier in the weekend, Trudeau spoke with Trump at a dinner Macron organized on Friday night — although government officials wouldn’t say the exact topic of conversation.
Trudeau has had to navigate cautiously around the mercurial American president, and talked pointedly about him on Sunday afternoon, but never mentioned Trump by name, as he is prone to do.
Trump did not shake Trudeau’s hand when he arrived with wife Melania at the iconic Arc de Triomphe for the Nov. 11 ceremony. Neither Trump nor Putin walked a bit of the Champs-Elysee with other leaders after church bells rang out as the hour turned to 11 a.m. local time, marking the moment the guns fell silent across Europe a century ago.
Trump has stirred several controversies since he arrived Friday in Paris for the event, and has taken great pains to separate himself from the other world leaders.
On Sunday, he and first lady Melania Trump travelled separately from most of the other presidents and dignitaries attending the event, who had gathered earlier at the Elysee Palace and travelled to the ceremony by bus. And Trump was not present as the other leaders arrived, walking side-by-side in a sombre, rain-soaked line holding black umbrellas as bells finished tolling.
Later on Sunday, Trump was scheduled to visit the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial in the suburbs of Paris, where he will deliver Veterans Day remarks before returning to Washington. More than 1,500 Americans who died during the war are buried there.
Trump has been criticized for failing to visit a different American cemetery about 100 kilometres outside of Paris on Saturday. Rain grounded the helicopter Trump had planned to take, so he cancelled the trip rather than travel by any other means.
By contrast, in the week ahead of Sunday’s commemoration, Macron has been touring First World War battlefields in northern and eastern France, repeatedly warning in speeches of the resurgence of nationalism, saying it threatened the unity so carefully rebuilt in Europe over the past 70 years.
In one interview, he compared the political tone now to the 1930s, saying complacency towards unbridled nationalism then had opened the way for the rise of Hitler.
In part, his warnings seemed aimed at far-right parties that have gained ground across Europe in recent elections, including in France, where the National Front, now renamed the National Rally, has nudged ahead of Macron’s En Marche movement in the polls ahead of European Parliament elections next May.
Besides France, right-wing nationalist or populist parties are on the rise or now have a stake in power in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Austria and Slovenia, among others.
There has been a similar resurgence in nationalist-populist sentiment from Brazil to Turkey and the Philippines, echoing trends in Russia and the United States and challenging the multilateralism that leaders like Macron are keen to preserve.
In his address on Sunday, Macron said that “old demons are reawakening” and warned against ignoring the past.
“History sometimes threatens to repeat its tragic patterns, and undermine the legacy of peace we thought we had sealed with the blood of our ancestors,” he said.
Asked in late October what he meant when he described himself as a nationalist, Trump cited his love of the country and said it was about putting it first economically.
“We’re giving all of our wealth, all of our money, to other countries and then they don’t treat us properly,” he said.
“For many years other countries that are allies of ours... they have not treated our country fairly. So in that sense, I am absolutely a nationalist and I’m proud of it.”