Obama joins Normandy village's annual date with history

6th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy and to mark the occasion Obama will meet his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy and attend a ceremony at the US war graveyard.

Colleville-sur-mer -- The tiny Normandy village of Colleville welcomed another US president Saturday when Barack Obama visited its cliff top graveyard, a symbol of America's sacrifice for Europe's freedom.

"I have been lucky enough to stand next to three presidents, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton," said former Colleville mayor Bernard Petit.

The 71-year-old remembers the day 65 years ago when American soldiers stormed the beaches below the village at the start of what proved the key turning point in the Allied fight to end Nazi domination of Europe.

And since then he has seen world leaders, veterans and countless ordinary citizens arrive in his village to visit the landing zone dubbed Omaha Beach and to pay homage to the 9,387 American soldiers buried here.

Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy and to mark the occasion Obama will meet his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy and attend a ceremony at the US war graveyard.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also attend the commemoration at the cemetery, which has been signed over by France to the United States in perpetuity.

Petit said that the presidential visits have changed over the years.

"In Carter's time it was very intimate," he said.

"There weren't the same fears of attacks that you have today. Carter, (then French president) Valery Giscard d'Estaing and I mingled with the crowd. I've never shaken so many hands."

But Reagan's arrival saw far stricter security measures.

"In 1984, with Reagan, who had been the victim of an attack in the United States, the locals were like extras in a film.

"I, like many others, had a US marine standing behind me, a great hulking brute, who was saying to me 'Do this, clap, move back two steps'. It was really annoying," said Petit.

The annual ceremonies have become highly stage-managed, said the current mayor of the village, Patrick Thomines, 49. He added, however, that it is still "an honour to receive the French and American presidents."

"For a village of 170 inhabitants, it's a stroke of luck. A president comes and all the cameras are turned on us. It's a huge promotion for tourism, which is our principal source of income," he said.

It lets Colleville show off the grassy hills that plunge down to the sandy beaches where US soldiers were slaughtered by German guns in what was one of the bloodiest landings in the largest amphibious operation in history.

An account of the landings written by reporters covering the action was placed in a time capsule and buried at the cemetery with instructions that it should be opened on June 6, 2044.

AFP/Expatica

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