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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Can remembrance re-unite France and US?

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

French President Jacques Chirac will host George W Bush this weekend to commemorate the D-Day landings which liberated Nazi-occupied France.

But after relations between the two nations were strained over the war in Iraq, can the spirit of remembrance help bring the two countries closer again?

Jacques Chirac and George W Bush
George W Bush will visit Paris and Normandy during his visit
Already, the US flag flutters alongside the French in many cafes near the beaches of Normandy.

The grass surrounding the American war graves near Omaha Beach has been trimmed and clipped to perfection, in readiness for this weekend's commemoration services.

There's no doubt about the gratitude felt by many in Normandy towards the tens of thousands of US and British soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate France 60 years ago.

Yet many here say these ceremonies will only bring into sharper focus the difference between how selflessly America acted then, and its actions today in Iraq.

Rarely have relations between Paris and Washington been so cool, at a political or even personal level, perhaps not since France withdrew from the Nato command several decades ago.

Wounds

Walking along Omaha beach, Henri Bougeard remembers clearly when he saw the first American soldiers enter his village in Normandy, driving out the German occupiers.

He was just 14 years old. "The Germans were decent to us until they had to fight for their lives, and after the Germans left, the Americans were decent to us too.

"We are grateful to them for what they did, make no mistake, but when I look at what is happening in Iraq today, I wonder about America."

It's a sentiment widely shared in France. Some fear this anniversary will not help heal the wounds: evidence of US torture in Iraqi jails has simply reminded many French of the ongoing problems there, according to Justin Vaisse, an expert on Franco-US relations at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris.

"Many people in Normandy still have a more pro-US view than the rest of the French, but if you talk to French schoolchildren, for example, the images of Abu Ghraib jail have replaced the images of D-Day, and that's very sad," he says.

"Of course the historic magnitude of the two events are not comparable and the sacrifices of World War II are what unite us and are much more important, but that is being obscured."

'French-bashing'

Yet on the Champs Elysees there is little evidence of anti-US sentiment.

McDonalds is full to bursting, and Hollywood movies are as popular as ever.

A new Starbucks near the Opera is doing a roaring trade. Some here believe the chill in relations is felt more deeply in America, with French exports of wine and cheese to the US still suffering.

Axel Poniatowski, a French MP on the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, says that anti-American feeling is not actually any worse in France now than it was a few years ago.

"The new phenomenon between France and America is not so much that the anti-US spirit has developed in France.

"It has always existed in part of the population, in perhaps 15 per cent of people.

"The new phenomenon is the French-bashing in deep America," he claims.
Relations couldn't be worse, but I don't know how they will improve. Maybe it would help if Bush lost the next election
Michel, 35

So what is the solution? "I think we need to go through a new crisis together - perhaps our common action against terrorism would enable us to improve relations."

Respect

And what kind of a welcome will President George W Bush receive in Normandy? There will be few ordinary people around to greet him - security is so tight that even locals have been told to stay at home and watch the remembrance ceremonies on television.

Many French say while they're happy to remember America's sacrifice 60 years ago, relations can't be improved until the US changes its behaviour.

"Relations couldn't be worse, so they should improve but I don't know how - maybe it would help if Bush lost the next election," says 35-year-old Michel.

American WWII cemetery at Colleville, Normandy
The French say they have not forgotten the US's sacrifice

"D-Day for French people is much more a way to remember what happened, than to remember the relationship between countries.

"It's important not to forget what happened before," believes Catherine, 24.

But some are more optimistic. Francois, 46, believes relations are on the up. "I think they will become better and better soon, as the US now needs France to help manage the Iraq problem."

Perhaps the real problem is that many French still respect the US - they just don't want it to be the world's only super-power.

They believe that a little more multi-lateralism, consultation with Europe, and effort by Washington to listen to France's opinion could make a world of difference, as French and American leaders come together to remember the ultimate sacrifice on the beaches of Normandy.



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