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French remember D-Day fight to free them
NEUVILLE-AU-PLAIN, France | The American soldiers dropped silently into Suzanne Duchemin’s garden that June night in 1944, one tangling his parachute in a tree.
German forces had left the Duchemin mansion just months before. Now, another slice of the bitter war had arrived to this bucolic stretch of Normandy — allied troops landing by parachute and boat, bringing the heady joy of liberation.
“Then the Germans tried to recapture this place,” said Ms. Duchemin, trim and energetic at 87, recounting a fading history as she sat in her chateau’s sun-dappled garden. “The entire battle took place here.”
Sixty-five years later, firsthand D-Day testimonials like Ms. Duchemin’s are disappearing. Fewer French and American war veterans gather each June to celebrate their joint history in Normandy villages such as Neuville-au-Plain, located about six miles from Utah Beach.
Indeed, a more recent war — in Iraq — clouded the last D-Day milestone five years ago, when former Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac awkwardly commemorated the Allied landing at the height of a trans-Atlantic rift marked by “freedom fries” mania and brie and Bordeaux boycotts in the United States.
This June 6 will underscore just how much the times — and the leaders — have changed. A still-dazzled Europe will watch President Obama walk the Normandy beaches with his French counterpart and self-proclaimed Americanophile, President Nicolas Sarkozy.
If fundamental policy differences between the United States and France remain — over Afghanistan, the financial crisis, world trade and Turkey’s European Union ambitions, to name a few — consensus has been achieved in bigger battles over Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay terrorism-suspect detention camp and climate change.
Perhaps more important, said analyst Jacques Mistral, is a sea change in tone.
“In terms of presentation, the difference is huge,” said Mr. Mistral, a specialist on U.S.-French relations at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.
“Former President Bush has never been appreciated on this side of the Atlantic for many reasons. … But for Europeans, Barack Obama exemplifies the renaissance of an America that everyone loves, that is completely in line with its best ideals.”
In Normandy itself, however, affection and gratitude for America stretches across generations and political cycles.
French and U.S. flags flutter in small villages with street names like Eisenhower and 505th Airborne, the latter a reference to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Stores still do brisk business selling war memorabilia in the summer, when Normandy’s winding roads are choked with tourist buses heading to the American and German cemeteries and the D-Day beaches.
About the Author
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