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US Role in D-Day Liberation Sharply Contrasts Iraq War,  French Intellectuals say - 2004-06-05

President Bush will stand side-by-side Sunday on a Normandy beach with French President Jacques Chirac at ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. But French expressions of gratitude for the American role in liberating the country in 1944 contrast with the widespread unpopularity in France of the Iraq war and of Mr. Bush himself.

At the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where 3,000 American soldiers died, the visitor's book is filled with French messages of gratitude. 'Thank you for our freedom,' says one. 'God bless America,' reads another.

Normandy is covered with reminders of such gratitude. There are statues of General Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw the D-day landings. American flags flutter outside public buildings and hotels. In the town of Saint-Lo, a plaque remembers the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The desire to preserve war memories is strong in Normandy. Local governments and news media have sponsored weeks of public gatherings to keep the emotions of that time alive, and pass them on to the young.

At one such gathering at Caen's War Memorial, Georgette Godes, who was seven-years-old on D-Day, recalled what the arrival of the Americans meant to her, after years of German occupation.

"With the arrival of the Americans, everything was different," she said. "We were euphoric. They were our liberators. And as children, who had been deprived of many things, all of a sudden we had food to eat. We had chocolate."

Despite the warmth the people of Normandy generally feel for the United States, for the first time this year, many of the accounts heard at the town meetings emphasized the destruction suffered by Norman towns from allied bombing and shelling, aimed at softening up German defenses.

That is nothing in comparison to the virulent anti-Americanism that has found favor among French intellectuals, spurred, they say, by the Iraq war, antipathy to President Bush and what the French see as his unilateral approach to tackling world problems.

Just listen to Emmanuel Todd, a respected writer and commentator, and author of a book on post-September 11 America he entitled, After the Empire.

Mr. Todd says this anniversary of D-Day is special because the 'good' America of 1944 will be remembered at the same time that the 'evil' America is conducting a useless war in Iraq.

He says that, in a certain way, the memory of those who fought in 1944 is being dishonored.

That kind of language, which echoes the references by President Bush about the struggle between good and evil that make the French cringe, has been rampant this week in French newspapers and on French radio and television.

Despite these feelings, the French and U.S. governments have been making public statements aimed at burying the hatchet after their confrontation over Iraq. Mr. Chirac says friends should speak frankly to each other. Mr. Bush says countries that share the same values can come together and tackle common goals, as they did during World War II.

In that spirit, French officials say, they have been assured by their U.S. counterparts that Mr. Bush will not use his address Sunday to draw comparisons between the Normandy landings and the controversial Iraq war, but instead will honor those who died 60 years ago.

That's exactly what Arlette Gondree wants to hear. She owns a tavern near the town of Ouistreham, which she claims was the first building to be liberated on D-Day.

"We want to concentrate on commemorating the sixtieth anniversary," Ms. Gondree said, "to thank all of the allies who brought freedom to Normandy, to the Norman people and to France."

If Ms. Gondree and other Normans have their way, the official speeches on Sunday honoring the sacrifices of Americans and others for France's freedom will not dwell on differences between the two countries. They will speak of valor and shared values, and an old friendship and a bond forged in blood.