President Barack Obama turns on Saturday to the icons and heroes of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, paying tribute to a feat that cemented the trans-Atlantic alliance in a bid to shore up today’s US-Europe relationship.
Normandy’s cliffs and coastline, still pocked with gun batteries and other remnants of World War II, provide sure footing for an American president. Obama gives the last speech of his international tour on what is technically US soil, at the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach, where he will host the leaders of France, Britain and Canada.
Thousands of veterans and active servicemen and women will be on hand to honor the 65th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 invasion, pivotal to the Allied victory against the Nazis. The day before, Obama witnessed the Nazi ovens of the Buchenwald concentration camp, its clock tower frozen at the time of liberation, and said the leaders of today must not rest against the spread of evil.
He challenged Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who casts doubt on the Holocaust, to visit Buchenwald, calling it the “ultimate rebuke” to those who deny its horrors ever happened.
Iran, and the themes of war and peace raised in Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world Thursday, will also follow him to France. They are likely to be central to his talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Normandy city of Caen, pummeled by the Allies’ push to wrest it from the Nazis.
Sarkozy met Wednesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who delivered a message from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sarkozy intends to discuss the message with Obama, according to a senior French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to presidential protocol.
Obama said Friday he is sending special envoy George J Mitchell back to the Middle East next week. The president is also hoping his outreach to Islam in his Cairo speech will make progress more possible toward Mideast peace.
In Normandy, Obama will be reaching out for more backup from European partners -- particularly France -- whose esteem for Washington wavered under President George W Bush.
Obama wants more European troops in Afghanistan and greater efforts to stimulate European economies. Sarkozy has resisted both appeals. In Cairo, Obama defended Muslim women’s right to wear the veil, while France has banned it from public schools.
The Normandy beaches are fitting place to plea for better ties.
Honoring American and British D-Day veterans on Friday, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said, “France is paying tribute to those who re-established our liberty ... France remembers who they were and what France owes them.”
Eighty-four-year-old William Dabney was among those honored.
“It makes me feel pretty good, makes me feel like my fighting was worth it,” said Dabney, a native of Roanoke, Virginia.
“The firing was furious on the beach. I was picking up dead bodies and I was looking at the mines blowing up soldiers. The planes come over scraping and we were digging in the sand,” Dabney said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not.”
There’s a personal side for Obama. His grandfather, Stanley Dunham, came ashore at Omaha Beach six weeks after D-Day. Dunham’s older brother Ralph hit Omaha on D-Day plus four.
Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as many Germans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing nearly three months it took to secure the Allied capture of Normandy, a battle that helped free France from Nazi control.
Obama and the other leaders will give speeches at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The ceremony ends with a 12-plane flyover by French, British and American jets, including a manoeuver in which one jet fighter suddenly veers off vertically to symbolise a soldier lost in combat.
Obama arrived in Paris on Friday night and heads to Normandy late morning. While Obama and Sarkozy discuss politics, their wives -- dueling style icons, Michelle Obama and model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy -- are expected to meet separately.
Michelle Obama and her two daughters paid a surprise visit to the Eiffel Tower on Friday night. It is the first excursion abroad as presidential daughters for 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, expected to stay in France until at least Monday. The president leaves Sunday.