June 5, 2004 -- PRESIDENT Bush travels to France today forthe 60th anniversary commemoration ceremony of the allied D-Daylanding in Normandy after an extraordinarily emotive commemoration inWashington, D.C., of the long-awaited World War II memorial.
A very different reception awaits Bush in France this weekend,where the French are gearing up for their own 60th anniversarycelebration. In Basse-Normandie, where the allied landings occurred,two vice presidents of the regional council announced they wererefusing to take part in any ceremonies where Bush or RussianPresident Vladimir Putin were present. "What image will we send ofNormandy to Arab and Islamic countries by receiving Bush and Putinwith pomp and circumstance?" one of them asked the French daily, LeMonde.
What image will France send to Arab and Islamic countries? Howabout the message France sends to its own citizens, or to its formerallies across the Atlantic, who left 66,000 of their fellow citizensbehind while liberating France twice from tyranny in the 20thcentury?
"The paradox of June 6," opinined former Prime Minister LaurentFabius, a Socialist, is that Bush "is the exact opposite of thevalues that make us love America." Le Monde apparently agreed:"Should we even offer this podium to Bush, since he never hesitatesto compare the struggle for freedom in Europe that was the battle ofNormandy to today's war in Iraq?" a reporter editorialized.
While the U.S. press has been full of personal accounts ofveterans of the D-Day landings over the past week, the onlyeye-witness report in Le Monde recounts the horrifying tale of theforgotten casualties of D-Day &emdash; the French civilians whoperished in the saturation bombing of strategic towns in Normandysuch as Lisieux and St. Lo. When the head of the local resistancecell met the first American soldiers, Le Monde's correspondentwrites, it was by raising his "clenched fist."
A French Web site dedicated to the civilian victims of the Battleof Normandy (unicaen.fr/victimes_civiles/), notes that 13,900 Frenchmen, women and children perished in Normandy between April 1 andSept. 30, 1944. It makes no mention of the 6,000 American soldierswho died on June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach alone.
I first traveled to Normandy on June 6, 1974 &emdash; exactly 30years after D-Day. I stayed in the homes of families who lost lovesones during the Allied bombings. Their memories were still raw, butreasoned. War is hell, France was occupied and the bombings were theprice of freedom, they said. If Bush were able to talk to ordinaryFrenchmen and women this weekend, I am convinced he would hearsimilar down-to-earth stories and common sense.
Instead, the French government officials who feed the Frenchmedia are filling columns with bitter invective. Le Monde'sWashington correspondent, Patrick Jarreau, told readersmatter-of-factly that Bush was going to France for one purpose only,"to show Kerry is a liar" when he claims that Bush cannot talk toEuropean leaders.
In a separate article, Le Monde noted that the Chirac governmenthas "formed its own resistance group" at the United Nations to fightU.S. plans for Iraq. The French still are hoping that the U.S. andU.N.-sponsored interim government in Iraq will fail so they canreturn to their old ways of corrupt rule.
Despite these rumblings, a senior White House adviser engaged inpreparing the summit meetings told me he was "cautiously optimistic"that the French might actually be helpful on Iraq.
"If we do reach an agreement with the French on how to moveforward in Iraq, it will be because we've set the stage," he said."If we don't, it's not because we haven't tried. A lot depends on ourfriend Jacques Chirac."
In recent weeks, this adviser says, the French have been makingpositive noises, "although we've been down that road before." Thereal test will be whether Chirac is willing to set aside his notionof "multi-polarity," that singular neo-Gaullist vision of Franceleading an anti-American bloc of European nations toward a historicbreak with America.
President Chirac continues to huff and puff about American"domination" in Iraq. He talks about the need for "full Iraqisovereignty," and demands that U.S. forces be placed undermultinational or Iraqi control &emdash; a nonstarter for any Americanpresident, or so one would hope.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sounded an optimisticnote when she briefed reporters on the upcoming talks with Chirac onTuesday. "Whatever differences we had in the past, that a free andprosperous and stable Iraq is a linchpin and a key to a stable MiddleEast is understood, and that people are looking for ways that theycan help to get that done."
We Americans are such interminable optimists. The French knowbetter, and they are biding their time, sharpening their knives andkeeping their rifles oiled. President, en garde.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer at Insight and the authorof "The French Betrayal of America."