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The symbolically exalted poilu serves politicians as a useful point of crystallization and orientation in the reconstruction of an unhappy, suffering national identity that threatens to come apart in the wind gusts of modernity.

Both conservative former President Sarkozy and his Socialist successor, François Hollande, saw the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I as a welcome opportunity to transfer the national unity, courage and willingness to make sacrifices of the French in 1914 to the present.

And it allows for an ecumenical interpretation of the past, in which those on the left and the right, pacifists and patriots, European idealists and nationalists can find common ground.The many milestones of Franco-German reconciliation -- Robert Schuman's 1951 plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the 1963 Elysée Treaty between then-President Charles de Gaulle and then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the handshake between later heads of state, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl in a graveyard near Verdun in 1984, and Sarkozy's invitation to Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. From the French perspective, that war should have been the last, in keeping with the utopia of poet Charles Péguy, who had written to a friend, shortly before he was killed at the front in September 1914: "I am going to battle for general disarmament, and for the last of the wars." Word War I was the first part of the same conflict. Thank you for a sober treaty on that old and decisive war. In these days of polarization, please keep it that way. In these days of polarization, please keep it that way. The passionate commemoration of World War I is a vital element of France's contemporary national cohesion.But before a momentous turning point in August 1914, the country looked to be on the brink of defeat.

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