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Reporter’s Notebook: D-Day Remembrance Stirs More Than Memories

At least the Royal Family, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Nicolas Sarkozy can take one measure of consolation from the emerging great D-Day flap of 2009: The fights among the British, French and Americans that preceded the landings 65 years ago were a lot worse.

No question this time around there was a protocol faux pas when Sarkozy failed to send at direct invitation to Queen Elizabeth II, a fellow head of state, to join President Barack Obama in the anniversary commemoration this Sunday at Normandy. Brown, however, made an even worse one, grabbing the invitation directed to the British government and not including the Queen or another royal.

The London tabloids stoked the controversy; a flap did ensue, and the Queen made it known she was not pleased. After all, of the potential VIPs, she was the only one around during World War II, serving as a teenage mechanic in the Territorial Army, the volunteer arm of the British Army.

The brouhaha also signals how low Brown has fallen in popularity as the British public and press blame him for the snub. And this in a country even more inclined than the United States to blame the French for everything. After all, they have had centuries of experience doing just that, with a number of wars to show for it. In contrast, the U.S. and French have occasional diplomatic tiffs that lead to headlines about “Freedom Fries” and similar jabs. And President Obama, the conciliator, may get some credit in Paris and London for trying to smooth over this latest flap and helping come up with the compromise solution of inviting Prince Charles.

So, presumably it will be all smiles at Normandy on Sunday.

That was hardly the case in the much more tense days preceding the great allied landing in 1944. Those vitriolic disputes were the culmination of years of tension between Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement that designated itself the French government-in-waiting once France was liberated from Nazi occupation and the puppet Vichy regime.

De Gaulle had moved from his headquarters in North Africa to London in anticipation of the landings. And he was a constant source of irritation to his Anglo-Saxon allies throughout. Roosevelt always was suspicious of de Gaulle’s ambitions and democratic loyalties, and they never hit it off personally; while Churchill’s relations with de Gaulle were constantly up and down.

“Of all the crosses I have to bear, the heaviest is the Cross of Lorraine,” Churchill famously remarked in reference to the symbol of the Free French.

Every day there was a tug of war, an angry argument, threats and counter-threats. There would be no American military government imposed on liberated France, de Gaulle insisted with great vehemence. No temporary French francs printed and issued by the allies. The role for the small contingent of Free French soldiers in the landings was a constant source of argument. Often, another American conciliator, allied supreme commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, had to smooth over ruffled feelings.

At the height of one of their rows, Churchill shouted at de Gaulle that confronted with a choice of the Atlantic and America or Europe, Britain would always chose the former. It was a conversation de Gaulle never forgot. Two decades later, when he was president of France, it became the backdrop for two vetoes of British entry into the European Common Market (now the European Union). And with only occasional exceptions, Churchill’s successors at Number 10 Downing Street have put the U.S. relationship far ahead of unification and harmony with continental Europe.

But on the beaches of Normandy Sunday, those memories will be almost as distant as the echoes of cannon fire when leaders two generations removed from that war honor the sacrifices of their grandparents’ generation.

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