- - Thursday, June 5, 2014

SAINT-PIERRE-DU-MONT, France — Despite shifting political winds, citizens of the northern French province of Normandy maintain their love affair with the United States in gratitude for America’s role in liberating the region from Nazi occupation during World War II.

“Normandy loves America,” said Helen Patton, granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton and whose Patton Foundation maintains a presence in the region. “Elsewhere it might be gauche to love America now, but here, we have this history.”

“We will never forget,” said Philippe Laillier, mayor of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, which includes Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the two American D-Day landing sites. “There are families of veterans and French families that have maintained lasting contacts over the last 70 years.”

The official ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Allied D-Day landing will include French President Francois Hollande, President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Normandy is awash in celebratory fever. Days before the anniversary date, the region was decked out in more American flags than one would likely see in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, even though Old Glory often shares space with French, British, Canadian and other flags. Hundreds of World War II enthusiasts from Allied countries already were patrolling roads in vintage Jeeps wearing period fatigues.

Thousands of people from around the world have converged on Normandy for the weekend celebration. Big towns and small villages each are planning special events.

A local outfit called Les Fleurs de la Memoire (Flowers of Memory) has placed thousands of flowers at individual gravesites at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, near Omaha Beach. Helen Patton is hosting two Woodstock-style concerts headlined by German guitar hero Thomas Blug, including one on Utah Beach, the second American landing site.

Meanwhile, the local affiliate for France 3, a leading TV network, has aired live newscasts from a different Allied landing site each day. And a local radio station’s food program has been presenting recipes for the perfect hamburger (“liberation cuisine”).

Throughout the country, history-conscious French have been busy watching a series of D-Day documentary films on television and reading about the landings in cover stories of major magazines.

A flurry of books about the subject have been released in recent months. The venerable French travel publisher Le Routard just released a new guidebook, “D-Day and the Battle of Normandy,” to help French tourists delve into the history of the landings and the ensuing battle that lasted several weeks and cost thousands of lives.

Some locals frown at the mention of Mr. Putin, especially in light of his recent meddling in Ukraine, but most seem to believe that the presence of the Russian president is reasonable, given Moscow’s decisive role in defeating the Nazis.

“I know that some have referred to the events in Ukraine as similar to what Adolf Hitler did when he annexed Sudetenland,” said French historian Stephane Lamache, author of “The American Normandy.” “But the ceremonies in Normandy should not be used to put President Putin’s methods on trial.”

Some in Normandy and the rest of France suggest that links should be made between the Nazi occupation and the success of France’s far-right National Front party in the May 25 elections for the European Parliament.

“There is a rise of fascism throughout Europe, including France, which most French people see as a disgrace,” said Philippe Gloaguen, who, as director of the Le Routard series, oversaw the production of the newly released guidebook. “This is terrible because the Allies basically came to free us from fascism and now there are Europeans, including the French, who are voting to bring back a fascist party.”

Theo Capelle is the retired founder of the Cidrerie-Distillerie Theo Capelle, a distillery of calvados, Normandy’s famous apple brandy.

“It is strange to have a party for the liberation exactly when people are voting for the extreme right,” said Mr. Capelle, who is also the lead singer of Magene, a band whose song lyrics are in the regional Norman language.

If the people of Normandy have complaints about the memorials and festivities, they are related to the scant attention paid to local suffering during the war.

“For a long time they have deplored the lack of commemorations for the civilian casualties, which were mostly due to the bombings,” said Olivier Wieviorka, a French historian and author of “Divided Memories: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present.”

Recently several monuments have been established to honor the estimated 2,500 locals who died during the battle, and Mr. Hollande will pay a special tribute to them this year.

“That’s a first,” said Mr. Wieviorka. “That omission is being addressed.”

Normandy’s love affair with the United States has not faded after annual D-Day festivities. Perhaps the most poignant example is the annual commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the town of Saint Lo. With a current population of about 19,000, the town earned the unenviable nickname “the capital of ruins” after being razed by bomb attacks during World War II.

“This provides solid evidence of the strength of the relationship between the people of Normandy and the Americans,” said Arnaud Digard, co-author of a French-English book aimed at teenagers titled “D-Day: Setting Free Normandy from Utah Beach to Mortain.” “It is one of deep recognition of the soldiers who died on Norman soil.”

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