D-Day in France

William Urban

The sixtieth anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy was celebrated in France as though the disagreements of the past decade and a half had not happened. President Chirac invited President George W. Bush, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen to join him at the beaches. It was the liberation not only of France, but also of Germany, and it prevented the Red Army from reaching across the Elbe River to the Atlantic Ocean. Stalin and his successors rarely pulled back from any place their armies occupied, as the Breshnev doctrine attempted to justify, and it would have been relatively easy to install a communist government in France.

The observation that France could have been a part of the Soviet empire came from Le Figaro, one of Franceís most influential newspapers, which had pages of memories and observations concerning D-Day each day. I was fortunate that my hotel provided the paper with breakfast, and that my daily program began late enough for me to have a leisurely morning repast. But I also saw D-Day programs in posters on the streets, and D-Day was the central exhibit in the newly remodeled World War II section of the war museum in Les Invalides (to which Napoleonís tomb is attached). D-Day and De Gaulle provided the central themes, but, as my students noted, America was represented in totally positive ways.

Everyone we met in the city was friendly, with the one exception of a postal worker who was very helpful until the young lady explained in French that she wanted her package mailed to the United States. It was not outrage at bad French, either; the young woman was a French major with a good accent. It was because the young woman was American. Our two trips into the countryside were also totally positive experiences.

Why have the French been so hostile in recent years? That is, the French elite, the ones who see themselves as the true bearers of civilization, a term that means French literature, French movies, French philosophy, French food, French wines and Jerry Lewis. A few of these points will be freely granted by all knowledgeable observers, though most of us will raise eyebrows at French movies and Jerry Lewis, and perhaps want to gag at the nihilism of modern French philosophy. But there is much to admire in France, and in the French. Still, it is difficult to move from the center of intellectual and political life to the periphery. And that has been Franceís fate ever since Waterloo, with a particularly steep decline in recent decades. But it has not been all bad. Not at all. Greatness has its costs, and Franceís decline was tied closely to the heavy financial burdens that dragged its workers and taxpayers into endless rounds of strikes and protests. The visitor to Paris, thrilled by one magnificent experience after another, only to be frustrated by some demonstration or labor action, has to marvel at what the French could achieve if they could only get their act together.

The basic problems are still financial: everyone wants more government subsidies or pay, and the thirty-five hour week just does not bring in enough revenue. A nice life if you can afford it, but most visitorsí wallets are usually empty after a week. In short, the average Frenchman, in contrast to the average student on a summer study program, has too much to think about to worry much about American foreign policy. They apparently prefer to read about D-Day, which were page one in every paper on the stands and in every radio report that I heard in my efforts to keep up on the world news. Why then, asked another writer in Le Figaro, are the French so ungrateful for being saved from Nazism by D-Day and from Soviet rule by the American people? "A great people are capable of being greatly ungrateful," he said. Maybe that says it all. France is still a great nation.

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