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U.S., France try to renew ties at D-day event

June 07, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE — Under an overcast sky not unlike the morning 63 years ago that Allied forces stormed the Norman beaches below, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Wednesday pointed to their sacrifice to argue that the U.S. and France have long worked together to defeat tyranny and now must do so again.

Speaking at the U.S. memorial on the northern French coast overlooking the graves of 9,387 Americans, most of whom were killed during the battle for Normandy, Gates marked the anniversary of the D-day landings by recalling the shared history of France and the U.S. during World War II and the Cold War. Despite occasional discord, he said, Washington and Paris "remained unified in purpose" against Nazi Germany and, later, Soviet communism.

Gates compared the struggle with Islamic extremism to those two previous conflicts, arguing that it too was an ideological battle that could take years or decades to resolve against an enemy determined to destroy democratic values.

"Events like this also remind us of all we have endured together, remind us of our long history in times of war and in times of peace, remind us of the shared values that transcend whatever differences we may have had in the past, or may have in the present," Gates said.

He addressed these comments to Herve Morin, the new French defense minister, who sat just feet away overlooking giant French and American flags straining in a brisk wind.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed during the fighting in Normandy, many of them because of Allied bombing.

Gates' trip to France is the first by a senior American official since the inauguration last month of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-charging conservative who has expressed admiration for American dynamism and economic success.

Sarkozy's comparatively pro-American rhetoric is a significant break from that of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and Gates' speech clearly attempted to build on the nascent improvement in the bilateral atmosphere by harking back to a time American blood was shed to liberate France from Nazi occupation.

"Many people believe that the foundations of the alliance forged in places like this have collapsed or outlived their usefulness," Gates said. "Let the people of our nations never forget that we are bound by history and values just as we are bound by blood. The blood of Americans. The blood of Frenchmen."

Morin, a youthful and amiable centrist who was born and raised in Normandy, attempted to strike nearly identical chords both in his address here and in a joint news conference in Paris on Tuesday, where he recalled that his father taught him to always appreciate the sacrifices Americans had made for France during World War II.

Here on top of the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, Morin said the Western allies must never forget how costly it can be to recover freedom and democracy. The U.S. and France did so "standing side by side" in two world wars, he said.

"Mr. Secretary, since the end of World War II our countries quarreled sometimes, but this feeling of union has always prevailed, and in the future will have to prevail above all," Morin said. "This transatlantic alliance is still necessary at the dawn of the 21st century."

Thus far, the thawing relationship between France and the U.S. has been almost exclusively rhetorical. Sarkozy has not, for instance, decided whether to publicly back the Bush administration's controversial plan to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. But the two sides made significant attempts to add to the sense of warming relations during the Defense secretary's brief stay.

At the news conference Tuesday, Gates and Morin emphasized the symbolic importance of the meeting. Morin reminded reporters that Gates was the first foreign counterpart to visit him since the new French government took office last month.

Gates in turn noted that he was the first Pentagon chief to come to Paris since the Clinton administration -- a reminder of the strained relations former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had with the previous French government.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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