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Merkel, Sarkozy In First Joint Armistice Ceremony


French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel take part in the Armistice Day ceremony marking 91 years since the end of World War I on November 11.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel take part in the Armistice Day ceremony marking 91 years since the end of World War I on November 11.

PARIS (Reuters) -- French and German leaders joined together on Armistice Day for the first time to remember their war dead, and pledged to work more closely together as partners in Europe.

To the sound of the national anthems of the two former enemies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid down a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

It was the first time a German leader had attended France's Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I hostilities on the Western Front on November 11, 1918.

"We gather this November to commemorate not the victory of one people over another, but hardship that was as terrible for one side as it was for the other," Sarkozy said in a speech.

"German orphans cried over the death of their fathers in combat just as French orphans did," he added.

Germany's suffering was long a taboo, given that it started both world wars. It has only in recent years become the subject of public discussion, as a new generation finds its own way of remembering the brutality and loss of millions of lives.

A visibly moved Merkel shook the hands of frail, grey-haired veterans of World War II.

Born after the war, she and Sarkozy bear none of the personal scars that marked previous French-German gestures -- most notably the 1984 visit by President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the French battle site of Verdun.

Mitterrand was injured in World War II in Verdun, while Kohl's father fought in the area in World War I.

At the encounter between Merkel and Sarkozy, flag-waving bystanders and chattering schoolchildren lent a note of cheerfulness to the somber ceremony.

While the leaders paid homage to the war dead, much of the talk was about the future, from policy to conflict resolution.

"The Germans and the French, once bitter enemies, now stand united as neighbours in a way that nourishes hope and confidence that elsewhere in the world, too, deep trenches can be bridged and overcome," Merkel said in her speech.

France and Germany are probably the closest allies in Europe, having long acted as the main driving force of the European Union. They run a joint military battalion, propose joint candidates for top EU posts, and there has been talk of turning Armistice Day into a festival of Franco-German friendship.

While there have been spats over France's fiscal laxness and ways of tackling the economic crisis, the two vowed on Wednesday to tightly coordinate policies in an enlarged EU.

"We share the same values, the same ambition for Europe, the same currency," Sarkozy said. "So it is natural that French and German policy should be conducted more and more closely."
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