World leaders to descend on France for WWI commemorations

A man dressed as a French soldier of the World war I (WWI) also called "poilu" stands guard in front of a monument in tribute to the soldiers killed during the World War I. (AFP)
Updated 04 November 2018
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World leaders to descend on France for WWI commemorations

  • Macron is gearing up for a busy week of diplomacy that will see him play host to leaders including Trump and Putin
  • Macron will notably use the international spotlight to issue a rallying cry against populism

PARIS: France kicks off a week of World War I commemorations from Sunday, with some 80 leaders from around the globe preparing to fly in for a ceremony marking a century since the guns fell silent.
French President Emmanuel Macron is gearing up for a busy week of diplomacy that will see him play host to leaders including US President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
He will also be criss-crossing northern France, visiting the battlefields where hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in the trenches.
Macron will notably use the international spotlight to issue a rallying cry against populism — in the presence of “America First” Trump and other nationalist leaders.
The commemorations will culminate in a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11 attended by dozens of leaders including Trump, Putin and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, 100 years to the day since the armistice.
The ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the Champs-Elysees avenue will be held under tight security following a string of deadly jihadist attacks in France over the past three years.
Remembrance events begin on Sunday, November 3 with a concert celebrating friendship between former wartime enemies France and Germany in the border city of Strasbourg, attended by Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Macron will then spend the week visiting the Western Front battlefields, from Verdun to the Somme.
On Tuesday, in honor of the “black army” of former colonial troops who fought alongside the French, he and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will visit Reims, a city defended by the African soldiers.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will join Macron on the Somme on Friday, while on Saturday he heads to the village of Rethondes, where the armistice was signed, with Merkel.
War commemorations aside, Macron is set to use his tour of northern France to visit areas hit hard by industrial decline, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen performed strongly in last year’s presidential election.
“After paying homage to those who died for their country it will be back to dealing with social and economic problems,” said Bruno Cautres of political think-tank CEVIPOF.
Macron — who has struggled to shake off an image as a “president of the rich” — will zip through 17 towns, holding Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting in the Ardennes, an area which was battered by the war and today suffers high unemployment.
The 40-year-old president, whose approval rating is languishing at a dismal 21 percent according to a YouGov poll released Thursday, has dismissed rumors that he is suffering from burn-out.
He sparked rampant speculation by taking a few days off ahead of the tour, which aides have insisted were to gather his energy before an intense week of diplomacy.
This week is an opportunity for the centrist to “reflect a strong presidential image” both at home and abroad, Cautres said.
Macron is set to use his speeches to hammer home warnings of the dangers of nationalism at a time when populists are on the march around Europe and beyond.
In an interview Thursday, he said Europe risked a return to the 1930s because of the spread of a nationalist “leprosy” across the continent.
“I am struck by similarities between the times we live in and those of between the two world wars,” he told the Ouest-France newspaper.
“In a Europe divided by fears, the return of nationalism, the consequences of economic crisis, one sees almost systematically everything that marked Europe between the end of World War I and the 1929 (economic) crisis.”
Macron is attempting to position himself as a champion of centrist politics and multilateralism in the run-up to European parliamentary elections in May, saying he expects the duel to be one between “progressives” and “nationalists.”
After next Sunday’s ceremony, world leaders are set to attend a three-day peace forum opened by Merkel, an event which France wants to turn into an annual multilateral peace conference.


Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

Updated 34 min 11 sec ago
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Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

  • Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers
  • A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday

ALLAHABAD, India: At the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious event, millions of Indian Hindus are not the only people bathing in the sacred waters to wash away their sins.
Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India for what is billed as humanity’s biggest gathering.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in a Jewish family in California but moved in 1996 to an ashram in Rishikesh — the town made famous internationally when the Beatles visited in 1968 — and changed her life and her name.
“I was on holiday with a backpack and when I got to Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, I had a very deep, very very powerful spiritual awakening experience which made me realize where I need to be, where I need to spend my life,” she said.
The 47-year-old is among the worshippers taking a dip at the Kumbh, which is expected to attract well over 100 million people over the next seven weeks.
“The reason we take a bath in the sacred waters is to achieve immortality ... immortality of the soul,” she said.
“It felt amazing, it always feels amazing... Normally only the body gets wet but here you actually feel like your inner self is getting wet, your heart, your soul is getting wet, your spirit... The depth of my being is being touched.”
A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday, according to local officials.
Nearly 30,000 police helped by drones buzzing overhead have been deployed to oversee crowds and prevent stampedes.
A vast tent city with restaurants, roads and marketplaces has sprung up along the river, with pilgrims camped out across a sprawling 45-square-kilometer (17-square-mile) zone.
Westerners who have immersed themselves in Hindu spirituality include Baba Rampuri, who claims to be the first foreigner to be initiated into India’s largest and most ancient order of yogis, the Naga Sannyasis of Juna Akhara.
The surgeon’s son — reportedly born William A. Gans — grew up in Beverly Hills and moved to India in 1970, and like Saraswati is active on Facebook and Twitter.
“I am not a great believer in modern technology, or the consumerist messages being sent out through the medium, but we have to make people aware that we exist,” he told the Indian Express.
Another is Sir James Mallinson, the dreadlocked fifth baronet of Walthamstow and British academic ordained as a mahant, or Hindu priest, in 2013. He also runs a paragliding firm in the Himalayas.
Many of the foreigners at the Kumbh are simple tourists though, keen to see the ash-smeared, pipe-smoking Naga sadhus, naked except for beads and flower garlands.
One ascetic has had his right arm raised for seven years. Another has been standing for eight months and aims to do so for another 43 months.