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WORLD WAR II

How France will mark VE day on May 8th

Saturday's commemoration of the date that marks the end of World War II in Europe will be happening under strict Covid-19 health rules, but there will be events in France.

How France will mark VE day on May 8th
French President Emmanuel Macron and some military will be attending this year's commemoration in Paris, as they did here, in 2019. Photo: Martin BUREAU / various sources / AFP

Why do we mark May 8th?

First a brief history. May 8th marks the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces in 1945.

Popularly known as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), it marks the date when World War II ended in Europe.

Some fighting continued around the world, however. The United States dropped its atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki months later, in August, and all hostilities officially ceased on September 2nd 1945.

But in Europe, May 8th brought the end of the Nazi threat and a promise of brighter times ahead.

How is May 8th commemorated in France?

France is one of the few European countries that have made May 8th a public holiday and most people get the day off work when it falls on a weekday (this year it will be on a Saturday, so unfortunately no extra day off).

READ ALSO The French holiday calendar for 2021

In normal times, without Covid-19, May 8th is majestically marked with a large ceremony in Paris and smaller celebrations in towns and cities across the country.

Last year’s event, although it marked the 75-year-anniversary, was a small-scale one compared to other years, as France was still under its first nationwide, strict lockdown. 

President Emmanuel Macron did go ahead with the wreath-laying ceremony at the Champs-Elysées, keeping with the tradition for French heads of state. 

What’s on this year?

The 2021 commemorations will also be less grand than other years as several Covid-19 restrictions remain in place in France.

IN DETAIL: France’s new calendar for reopening after Covid restrictions

As last year, Macron will lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, which stands at the top of the Champs Elysées, in the presence of “a restricted number of public officials and military,” the French Defence Ministry said a press statement.

The ceremony will be closed to the public, though it will be possible to watch it live on television.

Regional authorities – the préfets – have permission to organise ceremonies in their areas, though “in a restricted format and while strictly respecting social distancing measures,” the statement read. These ceremonies will also be closed to the public.

Mayors can also lay wreath at war memorials in their communes, in ceremonies that, again, have to be in line with health rules and be closed to the public.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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