At the Arc de Triomphe, a nightly duty

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Dozens gather, some by design and many by happenstance. Some are hushed and a few — yeah, they were Americans — are noisily making dinner plans. They are about to witness a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe that has taken place every night for nearly nine decades, including during the World War II years when the Nazis occupied Paris. The relighting of the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a constant.

Each night, just before 6:30 pm, barricades are placed to close off the central paths beneath the massive arch. Tours still continue, with people entering the arch on one side, climbing to the top and then descending on the other side, as the preparations begin. They are led by members of La Flamme sous l’Arc de Triomphe, who are identified by armbands bearing a facsimile of a burning flame. It takes me a long time to find one who spoke English.

“This is a choice, for every one of us,” said Jean-Pierre Champoud, a banker and member of La Flamme who participates in the ceremony several times a month. He says he has been involved for 25 years but immediately begins to scan the crowd and then points at one older gentleman: “Over there, 50 years. Fifty. Long time.”

Tourists emerge from the Arc to see musicians and flag bearers gathering, some arriving from the nearby Metro station. By this time, the gas flow controlling the flame has been discreetly turned down. Dignitaries begin to assemble and are arrayed near the site, which includes an inscription that reads, “Ici Repose Un Soldat Francais Mort Pour La Patrie. 1914-1918.”

The Arc de Triomphe, built by Napoleon I, is the site of the 20th century’s first great tomb of the unknowns, a post-World War I phenomenon that resulted from the the public’s attempt to deal with the war’s unprecedented loss of life. The coffin was first brought to the site from Verdun in November of 1920 and buried there a year later. The flame was added in 1923. It was first lit by France’s minister of war, Andre Maginot, a man better known for the series of defensive forts — the Maginot Line — that proved to be no obstacle to the German blitzkrieg in World War II.

The claim is that the flame has been re-kindled every night since. This night, special guests are given a place of honor as witnesses. “Tonight they are from…,” Champoud says, and then reaches into his pocket for a scrap of paper on which is scrawled the word “Sachsenhausen,” a German concentration camp.

Survivors? “Yes, survivors and their families,” he says.

At 6:30, a procession begins with people bearing flowers followed by about two dozen white-gloved flag bearers who are members of French veterans associations. Nearby, a bugler and drummer who look like military school students begin to play a flourish, which signals the laying of more wreaths and then the raising of the flame by means of a gold sword that is reached down into the fire pit to adjust the gas control.

Then, all of the flags are lowered and, following a minute of silence, the bugler plays, “Aux Morts,” the French equivalent of “Taps.” When he is finished, all of the flags are raised and the bugler plays a few notes. A single voice rises from amid the flags and alone sings the first line of France’s national anthem, “Le Marseillaise.” Then everyone joins in.

The ceremony takes about 20 minutes. Tourists stand behind temporary metal barricades, some transfixed, others snapping a few photos and moving on, others chatting and paying little attention as they wait for the barricades to be removed and the paths beneath the great arch to be reopened.

“Why?” Champoud says, repeating a question. Why is he a member of La Flamme?

“I am patriotic,” he says, and then he stops and searches for the right words in his second language.

“It is honor,” he says, suddenly standing at attention and then tapping his chest. “It is honor.”

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