June 5, 2004 -- PRESIDENT Bush travels to France today for the 60th anniversary commemoration ceremony of the allied D-Day landing in Normandy after an extraordinarily emotive commemoration in Washington, 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 anniversary celebration. In Basse-Normandie, where the allied landings occurred, two vice presidents of the regional council announced they were refusing to take part in any ceremonies where Bush or Russian President Vladimir Putin were present. "What image will we send of Normandy to Arab and Islamic countries by receiving Bush and Putin with pomp and circumstance?" one of them asked the French daily, Le Monde.
What image will France send to Arab and Islamic countries? How about the message France sends to its own citizens, or to its former allies across the Atlantic, who left 66,000 of their fellow citizens behind while liberating France twice from tyranny in the 20th century?
"The paradox of June 6," opinined former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a Socialist, is that Bush "is the exact opposite of the values that make us love America." Le Monde apparently agreed: "Should we even offer this podium to Bush, since he never hesitates to compare the struggle for freedom in Europe that was the battle of Normandy to today's war in Iraq?" a reporter editorialized.
While the U.S. press has been full of personal accounts of veterans of the D-Day landings over the past week, the only eye-witness report in Le Monde recounts the horrifying tale of the forgotten casualties of D-Day &emdash; the French civilians who perished in the saturation bombing of strategic towns in Normandy such as Lisieux and St. Lo. When the head of the local resistance cell met the first American soldiers, Le Monde's correspondent writes, it was by raising his "clenched fist."
A French Web site dedicated to the civilian victims of the Battle of Normandy (unicaen.fr/victimes_civiles/), notes that 13,900 French men, women and children perished in Normandy between April 1 and Sept. 30, 1944. It makes no mention of the 6,000 American soldiers who died on June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach alone.
I first traveled to Normandy on June 6, 1974 &emdash; exactly 30 years after D-Day. I stayed in the homes of families who lost loves ones during the Allied bombings. Their memories were still raw, but reasoned. War is hell, France was occupied and the bombings were the price of freedom, they said. If Bush were able to talk to ordinary Frenchmen and women this weekend, I am convinced he would hear similar down-to-earth stories and common sense.
Instead, the French government officials who feed the French media are filling columns with bitter invective. Le Monde's Washington correspondent, Patrick Jarreau, told readers matter-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 to European leaders.
In a separate article, Le Monde noted that the Chirac government has "formed its own resistance group" at the United Nations to fight U.S. plans for Iraq. The French still are hoping that the U.S. and U.N.-sponsored interim government in Iraq will fail so they can return to their old ways of corrupt rule.
Despite these rumblings, a senior White House adviser engaged in preparing 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 move forward 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 our friend Jacques Chirac."
In recent weeks, this adviser says, the French have been making positive noises, "although we've been down that road before." The real test will be whether Chirac is willing to set aside his notion of "multi-polarity," that singular neo-Gaullist vision of France leading an anti-American bloc of European nations toward a historic break with America.
President Chirac continues to huff and puff about American "domination" in Iraq. He talks about the need for "full Iraqi sovereignty," and demands that U.S. forces be placed under multinational or Iraqi control &emdash; a nonstarter for any American president, or so one would hope.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sounded an optimistic note when she briefed reporters on the upcoming talks with Chirac on Tuesday. "Whatever differences we had in the past, that a free and prosperous and stable Iraq is a linchpin and a key to a stable Middle East is understood, and that people are looking for ways that they can help to get that done."
We Americans are such interminable optimists. The French know better, and they are biding their time, sharpening their knives and keeping their rifles oiled. President, en garde.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer at Insight and the author of "The French Betrayal of America."