- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

PARIS — Against the backdrop of war in Iraq, world leaders will issue “a message of peace” when they gather in France next month to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the French minister of war veterans said in an interview last week.

Driving the commemorations is a realization that the anniversary likely will be the last major opportunity to mark the epic invasion that led to Nazi Germany’s defeat with those who lived through it.

“There will be far fewer for the 70th anniversary, alas, human beings being what they are,” Hamlaoui Mekachera said. “The 60th anniversary is a very important point of reference, and people are aware of that.”

Seventeen heads of state and government — “on whom peace, and the world’s conflicts, depend” — are expected in Normandy on June 6, the minister said. They include President Bush, who will join with his strongest European critics of the Iraq war — Jacques Chirac of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany.

“There’s a desire to gather on that day to say, even without saying it aloud: ‘Never again. We are here so that there is a space on a global scale for peace,’” Mr. Mekachera said. “Otherwise, it would make no sense. Why do all this if it is not a message of peace?”

Two world wars on its soil in the 20th century taught France there are no winners in armed conflict, he said.

“We paid a heavy price. The Americans, perhaps, had no war on their territory. Americans who did not fight the war, who did not come to Europe to fight, cannot perceive as much as we do the disastrous consequences of war,” the minister said. “We became aware that in the end, those who lose the war and those who win it are all losers.”

To mark the June 6, 1944, Allied assault on Adolf Hitler’s defenses in occupied France, Mr. Chirac wants “both a festival, with moments of gravity, too, and a signal that finally we can live in peace. It’s so easy to say but so difficult to turn into reality.”

However, France also is bracing for the possibility of a terrorist attack during the festivities. The Defense Ministry said it will mobilize at least 15,000 soldiers and police officers to provide security during the ceremonies.

Military forces will be backed by AWACS surveillance aircraft, fighter jets, naval minesweepers and dozens of helicopters, the ministry said.

Mr. Schroeder, who was born the year of the Allied invasion, will be the first German chancellor to take part in D-Day commemorations, an invitation criticized by some. The critics include one of Mr. Mekachera’s predecessors, former veterans minister Louis Mexandeau, who said Germany should pay reparations and apologize for wartime actions.

However, Mr. Mekachera said it is time to turn the page.

“We want to use the past for the future, and the future for us is the building of lasting peace,” he said. “When the past serves this lasting peace, why not? It’s not the politics of politicians.”

Germany and France, “after tearing at each other for decades, they want now, clearly, to like each other,” he said.

Mr. Schroeder, in Paris on Thursday for a joint meeting of the French and German cabinets, thanked Mr. Chirac, calling him “dear Jacques,” for his “big-hearted gesture.”

“To take part in [the anniversary of] the day on which the liberation of Europe began is a great honor for me but, more than that, an important signal to the people of our country whose historical significance really cannot be estimated highly enough,” he said.

France plans to bestow its prestigious Legion of Honor award on 300 veterans to mark the anniversary, Mr. Mekachera said. They include almost 100 Americans to be honored at a June 5 ceremony in Paris.

On June 6, Mr. Chirac will decorate 14 veterans, each representing a country involved in the landings, Mr. Mekachera said. Mr. Chirac also has decided to decorate a dozen survivors of a 177-member French contingent that fought for the Normandy port town of Ouistreham during the invasion, he said.

The people of France, he added, must mark the landings to transmit their memories and the lessons of war to the young.

“We complain, for example, that in the suburbs, we have a youth that is left to its own devices, without points of reference,” he said. “By God, we can pass things of value onto them, things that can help in life.”

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