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A Grateful, Hostile France Awaits Bush

Discord over the Iraq war has many asking if the nation of D-day heroes has lost its way.

June 05, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — As France prepares to welcome President Bush for weekend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-day, the media here have been full of images of the GIs who helped liberate Europe from the Nazis in the blood and sand of Normandy.

Inevitably, however, the coverage has juxtaposed photos and recollections of the combat on Omaha Beach with recent images of GIs in Iraq, especially the graphically documented abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. The French, like many other Europeans, are asking whether the crisis in Iraq shows that the heroic America symbolized by the Normandy landings has lost its way.

The intrusion of this uncomfortable debate into a cherished anniversary reflects the troubled state of transatlantic relations and of the friendship between France and the United States. When Bush meets today with French President Jacques Chirac, he will come face to face with an ostensible ally who has nonetheless dedicated great energy to blocking Bush's boldest moves in the international arena.

The 71-year-old Chirac, an elder statesman among world leaders, spearheaded opposition to the war in Iraq and sees the Bush administration's troubles there as vindication of the French position. It is widely believed that Chirac and his European allies hope that "somebody else will be around in the White House" after the U.S. presidential election in November, political analyst Francois Heisbourg said.

"People are trying to pretend that they are getting along," said Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. "It's an appearance of normalcy. But it's the appearance of normalcy of a couple who have decided to get a divorce. Many of the French say that Bush is not the America that came to liberate us in 1944."

The encounter between Bush and Chirac will be edgy because of their ideological and generational differences and the persistent, if muted, tension between their governments. The leaders are expected to emphasize the positive -- anti-terrorism cooperation remains a strong point -- and put on a carefully calibrated display of warmth.

"There is an effort by both sides to have relations on as normal a footing as possible," said a U.S. official who declined to be identified. "Normal doesn't mean great. Normal means normal. It won't be a love fest, I suspect. They come from different generations -- that shouldn't be underestimated."

Nonetheless, Chirac and Bush seem intent on demonstrating that U.S.-French relations are improving. Their message will be that the alliance is too strong and profound to be affected by episodes of diplomatic conflict, said the U.S. official and other observers.

Chirac benefits politically because he hopes to make it clear to voters that his confrontational stance has not hurt France's standing in the world. Bush, similarly, hopes to rebuff the campaign trail accusations of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, his Democratic challenger, that his go-it-alone approach to international affairs has alienated important allies.

Chirac and Bush will meet this afternoon, along with foreign policy aides, to discuss matters that include Iraq, the larger Middle East situation and the upcoming G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Sea Island, Ga., French officials said. The leaders will hold a news conference and then have dinner. On Sunday, they will join Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and leaders from 11 other nations for beachfront ceremonies in Normandy marking the D-day landings.

On Friday, the streets of Paris bustled with preparations for a weekend during which hallowed history and today's angry politics will collide. U.S. flags appeared on government buildings. The music of bands and choirs filled the air as commemorative events got underway.

Platoons of riot police and teams of soldiers with automatic weapons deployed throughout the city, patrolling areas around the U.S. Embassy and the presidential palace as well as landmarks, transportation centers and even the vast parkland on the edge of the capital. The French have massed a security force of about 19,000 to deal with expected anti-American protests and the threat of terrorist attack.

Just three months ago, the Al Qaeda terrorist network pulled off its first major strike in Western Europe with train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and coincided with the final days of Spain's national election campaign. In addition to having to protect Bush, Chirac and the other world leaders, French authorities worry that terrorists could capitalize on Bush's presence to attack "softer" civilian targets, a scenario that is harder to prevent. November's Al Qaeda-linked bombings of the British Consulate and a British bank in Istanbul, Turkey, took place when Bush was in London meeting with Blair.

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