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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump in show of unity after row over Europe's defence

The two played down divisions at the First World War Armistice centenary commemorations

French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump meet at the Elysee Palace in Paris for the centenary commemorations of Armistice Day. AP
French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump meet at the Elysee Palace in Paris for the centenary commemorations of Armistice Day. AP

United States President Donald Trump and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron sought to ease tensions after a row over defence that risked clouding the First World War Armistice centenary commemorations in Paris.

Mr Trump was one of dozens of world leaders taking part in events to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

On Saturday, he and his wife Melania cancelled a trip to Belleau Wood battlefield and cemetery in northern France, citing "scheduling and logistical difficulties" caused by the rainy weather.

Coming on the eve of Veteran's Day in the United States, the decision drew criticism on social media, where many noted that the rain had not stopped Macron, Germany's Angela Merkel or Canada's Justin Trudeau from paying their respects to the dead.

"They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn't even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen," Nicholas Soames, a British Conservative member of parliament and grandson of Winston Churchill tweeted.

Ceremonies have been held across the world this week in honour of the 18 million soldiers and civilians who perished in the First World War.

In one of the high points, French President Mr Macron and German Chancellor Mrs Merkel on Saturday unveiled a plaque to the Franco-German reconciliation, in a forest clearing in north-east France where the armistice ending the conflict was signed.

Mr Macron, a centrist advocate of open borders and multilateralism, has repeatedly invoked the war in recent weeks to hammer home his message that rising nationalism is again destabilising the world.

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He will host Mr Trump, Mrs Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Canadian Prime Minister Mr Trudeau, among others, for dinner at the Orsay Museum on Sunday evening.

On Sunday morning, they will be joined by President Vladimir Putin of Russia for the main ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, which will be attended by 70 world leaders.

On Saturday, Mr Macron and Mr Trump downplayed their divisions after a tumultuous start to the weekend, in which Mr Trump fired off a tweet slamming the French president's proposals for a European army just as his plane was touching down in Paris.

The spat was the latest between the pair, who struck up a warm relationship initially but have clashed over a growing list of issues, including the US president's decision to pull his country out of the 2015 Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

"President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the US, China and Russia," the US president tweeted, referring to remarks made by Mr Macron three days earlier.

"Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the US subsidizes greatly!"

In the interview, Mr Macron cited Mr Trump's plans to pull the US out of a Cold War-era nuclear treaty and said a joint European Union force was needed to end Europe's reliance on US military might.

"We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States," he said, listing various threats, including cyberattacks.

During talks later at the Elysee Palace, Mr Macron said his call for greater European autonomy on defence was not intended as a snub towards the US and backed Mr Trump's calls for EU members to boost their defence spending.

"We need a much better burden-sharing within Nato," he said, patting his counterpart's knee affectionately.

Mr Trump described himself and Mr Macron as "very good friends" and expressed support for "a strong Europe".

The US leader, however, ducked out of a peace conference Sunday in Paris, which Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel intend to use as a platform for promoting multilateralism.

The First World War commemorations come at a watershed moment for the liberal post-war order, with anti-immigration populists at the helm in the US and Brazil, sharing power in Italy, and making strong gains in Germany, where Mrs Merkel has announced her resignation in 2021 after a series of electoral setbacks.

On Saturday, she visited the site of Germany's capitulation at the end of the war — the first German leader to do in 78 years.

The forest in Compiegne is doubly symbolic as Adolf Hitler chose the same train carriage in the same clearing to sign the surrender of the French on June 22, 1940 at the start of the Second World War.

Mr Macron, sporting a cornflower in his lapel — the French equivalent to Britain's remembrance poppy — and Mrs Merkel reviewed grey-clad soldiers from the Franco-German brigade, before unveiling a plaque to Franco-German reconciliation.

They also visited a replica of the carriage, which was destroyed during the Second World War.

The visit underscored the close ties between two countries that fought three wars between 1870 and 1945 but are now seen as the linchpins of peace in Western Europe.