November 10, 2008 / 2:27 PM / 10 years ago

France marks WWI without veterans as questions grow

PARIS (Reuters) - France celebrates the 90th anniversary of the end of World War One Tuesday as a government-commissioned report said the country should cut back on the number of official memorial days.

A colour party marches away from the Canadian National Vimy Memorial following a Remembrance Day ceremony to commemorate members of the armed forces who were killed since World War One in Vimy, France, November 9, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

World War One, fought in large part on their home soil, cost more than 1.4 million French lives between 1914-1918 and remains firmly anchored in the country’s memory even after the death this year of Lazare Ponticelli, its last surviving veteran.

But with 11 other national days ranging from memorials to the dead of France’s colonial wars in Algeria and Indochina to the abolition of slavery, some believe there can be too much official commemoration.

“It is not healthy that within half a century, the number of commemorations has doubled,” the report of the commission headed by historian Andre Kaspi, said, according to an extract quoted in the daily Le Figaro Monday.

“It is not acceptable that the nation gives in to communitarian interests and multiplies the number of days of repentance to satisfy a group of victims because that would be to weaken the national consciousness,” it said.

The commission recommends retaining Armistice Day, the May 8 celebration to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Bastille Day celebration on July 14, relegating the other commemorations to local or regional events.

Some critics have also said that in the interests of European unity, commemorations of the wars that tore the continent apart last century should lose some of their purely national emphasis.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to attend an Armistice Day celebration Tuesday but in a break with tradition, will not commemorate the event at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris.

Instead, he will go to the Douaumont Ossuary, at the site of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, in which an estimated 300,000 French and German men died in 10 months of bombings. The ossuary preserves the remains of some of those soldiers.

Nine decades after the armistice, French authorities are aiming the message of commemoration mostly at young people and teenagers for whom the conflict is no more than a few grainy black and white photos in their school history books.

“The men who fought in this war were people their age, people who had the same aspirations in life, to succeed, to love ... and young people today can relate to that,” Jean-Marie Bockel, secretary of state for veterans, told Reuters.

Writing by Estelle Shirbon and James Mackenzie; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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