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Allies Set to Celebrate D-Day Anniversary


When President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy jointly commemorate the 65th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy, France on June 6 they will turning the page on another war that bitterly divided the two countries - in Iraq.

The last major D-Day celebration five years ago marked one of the lowest points in U.S.-French relations in years. But much has changed between the United States and France - including their leaders. Here is our report from the Normandy town of Sainte Mere Eglise.

Sainte Mere Eglise residents remember American parachute landings

This tiny town is gearing up for D-Day celebrations that will be taking place across France's bucolic Normandy region. But memories of the allied landing 65 years ago are on display here year round - on the church steeple for example, where the figure of an American parachutist still hangs. Those memories are also still fresh for residents like Andree Auvray, who was 18 years old when American troops parachuted into Sainte Mere Eglise.

Auvray said it was an incredible experience. She and other Sainte Mere residents cared for wounded soldiers. French and Americans lived together in fear the Nazis would return. They did, but the Americans recaptured Sainte Mere Eglise.

D-Day carries a special resonance in Normandy - even for the younger generation, like 35-year-old Stephan Cachard. This year's commemoration is particularly special, not only because it marks the 65th anniversary, but because President Barack Obama will be in Normandy June 6 to commemorate it.

Cachard says Mr. Obama offers the face of America that Europeans like - that of initiative, of courage, of hope for a better world.

President Obama's visit opens new chapter in French-American relations

This is not Barack Obama's first trip to France as president. In April, he attended a NATO summit in the eastern city of Strasbourg. And he met French President Nicolas Sarkozy last July as a candidate for the White House.

But Mr. Obama's visit to the Normandy beaches not only commemorates Europe's liberation from Nazi Germany but it also opens a new chapter in a long and sometimes rocky relationship.

In 2004, former U.S. president George Bush stood side-by-side with then-French president Jacques Chirac in Normandy to mark D-Day's 60th anniversary. It came as US-French relations were at a low point. The year before Washington had led another invasion - into Iraq, to topple long-time dictator Saddam Hussein.

French opposition to Iraq war angered many Americans

And France led international opposition to the Iraq war, which angered many Americans. France and other Europeans were also staunchly against the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the Bush administration's stance on global warming.

For a while, the classic French fry got a new name in the United States - "freedom fries." Americans boycotted brie cheese and Bordeaux wine.

Analyst Jacques Mistral says ties between the two countries plunged to lows not seen in years. Mistral, who is an expert in US-French relations at the French Institute of International Affairs in Paris said relations between the two governments soon improved. But public perception was another matter.

"There has always been a big difference in French minds and more generally in the European public opinion between the appreciation of the president and his policy, and the feeling of people toward America," said Jacques Mistral. "The former president Bush has never been appreciated on this side of the Atlantic for many reasons."

But the times - and the leaders - have changed. France's Sarkozy, who took office in 2007, is a self-proclaimed Americanophile. And Mr. Obama, who took office in January, has vowed to pull U.S. troops from Iraq - and to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center by next January. Jacques Mistral.

"Naturally, the election of Barack Obama is a major change in terms of perception and of political relationship," he said. "The candidate Barack Obama was extremely popular in Europe and in every European country, Barack Obama exemplifies a renaissance of America - [the] America that everyone loves that is completely in line with its best ideals."

Paris and Washington still have major policy differences - on ways to fight the financial crisis, for example, or whether to send more European troops to Afghanistan. But, Mistral says, perception counts for a lot.

In Sainte Mere Eglise, Francine Duchemin is looking forward to Mr. Obama's visit to Normandy.

"Everyone is very happy to see Mr. Obama and we can feel the relationship between the French government and the United States [is] much better than it was during the 60th anniversary," said Francine Duchemin. "But my feeling is that was just politics. People really love and venerate the Americans."

So as Americans and French mark D-Day, they will also be celebrating a relationship that has weathered a few bad patches - and, many hope, is stronger as a result.

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