In France, the centenary of Armistice and the end of the First World War is one of four themes identified in the 2017 call for projects of the ‘Mission du Centenaire’, the lead state agency, the others being the commemoration of the last battles of the war, the making of the peace and ‘conflict resolution’, and beyond 1918 mourning and reconstruction. The main thrust of state commemoration is clearly placed on 11 November when President Macron will host representatives of 80 combatant nations at a ceremony in Paris. This event is aimed at closing the parentheses on the four-year cycle of commemoration with a reprise of the opening ceremony of 14 July 2014 which saw the soldiers of 72 nations join the annual Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysées at the invitation his predecessor François Hollande. If the intervening three years of the centenary programme have become ‘itinerant and decentralized’, in the words of its director Joseph Zimet, the return to the centre provides a stage to measure the impact of the internationalization and Europeanization of public commemoration on the development of shared memory between France and the nations it has hosted in the course of the 14-18 centenary.
The First World War centenary is the culmination of a policy of bilateral ‘shared history’ agreements and multilateral ‘memory summits’ orchestrated by Paris since 2003 and aimed at coordinating state commemorative programmes and calendars over the long 14-18 cycle while sustaining public interest. Though commemorative programmes may be painstakingly prepared and choreographed up to a decade in advance, they are subject to the contingencies of public attention, political change (elected governments and leadership) and international events (the rise of Euroscepticism and populist protectionism). In other words, the politics of the past is no more written in stone than the spaces of commemoration are rooted in the landscape. One of the aims of the project, therefore, is to read how such factors have or have not inflected or modulated the ‘soft diplomacy’ of the centenary and shifted its arenas at the national and transnational levels of agency. The other is to examine the popular reception of shared memory as a vector of public diplomacy at regional and local levels: just how ‘shareable’ and shared has the policy-driven agenda proven to be?