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Last Updated: Friday, 4 June, 2004, 18:49 GMT 19:49 UK
'It's bigger than Bastille Day'
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online in Normandy

Bakery in Ouistreham
A bakery in Ouistreham is decked out with Allied flags
Forget 14 July, the big party in Ouistreham is this weekend.

Sixty years after "le debarquement", as the French call the D-Day landings, this Normandy seaside town is ready for its biggest celebration yet.

Flags from the Allied countries fill the streets and shops, while German flags seem just as welcome.

The voice of Edith Piaf booms from the bakery to take passers-by back to the 1940s.

Welcoming posters fill the windows to greet the hundreds of veterans who are in town.

There is a warm relationship between the community and the veterans who come regularly
Eric Fournier, of Le Chalet hotel
A spring clean has swept through Lower Normandy towns in the past few months, so every hedgerow is manicured and each sign freshly painted.

But to find a room in Ouistreham, a small town with a population of just 8,759, you needed to plan well ahead.

Eric Fournier, of Le Chalet hotel, said: "We were booked up 18 months ago and if I had 300 rooms, I could fill them, no problem."

Ouistreham was a key victory on D-Day, when British and French troops landed on nearby Sword Beach and liberated the town at 1pm.

Painting in Caen
Lower Normandy's towns have all been given a spring clean

During the weekend, the dignitaries to honour this achievement will include Prince Charles and President Jacques Chirac.

Mr Fournier said: "There is a warm relationship between the community and the veterans who come regularly.

"This year is very special because it could be the last for a lot of the veterans aged between 80 and 85."

Ouistreham events
Open air music
Meditation walk
Young people's ceremony
French national ceremony
Other commemorative events
He has struck up a special bond with one particular British veteran, Tommy Paterson, 83, who is pictured in the hotel lobby.

Postcards from children

Mr Paterson, who lost his sight in one eye in a mortar attack one month after D-Day, said: "These pictures were my present to Eric.

"We get a very warm welcome here. When local people see your veterans' badge, they come up and speak to you."

Postcards from schoolchildren thanking the former soldiers for their valour are printed and distributed.

Eric Fournier with Tommy Paterson and his great-grandchild Georgia
Veteran Tommy Paterson has built a warm relationship with locals

Pascale Menude, 30, who runs an ice cream shop, said it is a bigger event than Bastille Day.

She said: "The young people at school learn all about le debarquement.

"I have two little girls and we explain to them what happened here and how important it is.

"One of them was on the beach letting off white balloons named after veterans, and she will be attending a ceremony on Sunday."

Edith Piaf may struggle to be heard at the weekend because local shopkeepers have compiled a CD of victory music.

One of them, Portais Graciella, said: "For us, it's the biggest party of the year."


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