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France celebrates D-Day anniversary with dance, historical film and world leaders at Omaha beach

BENOUVILLE, France — Historical film footage and modern interpretive dance recreated the images of World War II at D-Day’s 70th anniversary, a blend of old and new that bridged seven decades and depicted a once riven Europe as a newly unified whole.

The dance performance took place across a giant map of Europe. Near its start, dancers in black Gestapo-like uniforms sought to subdue others in overalls. Dancers in olive drab represented the landing on Normandy’s beach, moving in slow motion as many fell to the ground only to rise again to the strains of a lone bagpiper. On giant screens behind them, scenes from the war unfolded, from an execution to D-Day to footage of surrendering Germans. Soviet, British and U.S. soldiers were shown celebrating and unfurling their respective flags.

One piece of footage showed Queen Elizabeth II as a wartime driver and mechanic with the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. She was one of the few visiting heads of state to have lived and served in the war.

If the moment may have proved awkward for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dance and film images also captured the post-war European reconstruction and the new alliances that emerged in its aftermath.

The ceremony ended with daytime fireworks of colorful flames and smoke and a missing man flyover emitting trails of red, white and blue smoke — the tri-colors of the U.S., French, Russian and British flags.

At its conclusion, a live camera caught President Barack Obama complimenting French President Francois Hollande: “It was a wonderful, wonderful event.”

Some reviews in social media were less sanguine.

“Someone in France apparently thought D-Day should be Dance-Day,” one Twitter wag declared.

Dancers march across a stage representing Europe in celebration of D-Day. Image from D-Day celebration video

Dancers march across a stage representing the world in the celebration of D-Day. Image from D-Day celebration video

Queen Elizabeth II’s Service

Among the European royalty gathered and chatting at the D-Day observance in Normandy, history gives Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II a special place. Not only was she one of the few heads of state there who lived and served during World War II, her family gets credit for saving other royal families’ lives during the war.

King George VI and the Queen Mother used Buckingham Palace as a safe-haven and a de facto base for resistance for ousted European royalties, according to biographer Hugo Vickers. And British warships helped royals flee the Nazi threat.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the formidable Dutch Queen Wilhelmina — the great-grandmother of Willem-Alexander who was present in Normandy — hopped on a British destroyer ship which took her across the North Sea and onto Buckingham Palace. She was given protection in the palace by King George VI and the Queen Mother, the Queen’s parents, the biographer has written.

From Britain, Queen Wilhelmina established the Dutch government in exile, organizing a command center and communicating messages to her people. Wilhelmina became an inspiration to the Dutch resistance.

Meanwhile, Norway’s King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav were also guests at Buckingham Palace after the Nazis invaded their country in April 1940. Haakon’s grandson King Harald V of Norway is also attending Friday’s ceremonies.

In addition to King Harald V and King Willem-Alexander, other members of royalty Friday in Normandy were King Philippe of Belgium, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg. Attending from the United Kingdom in addition to Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, were their son, Prince Charles, and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall; and their grandson Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge.

A Tense Meal with Putin

Lunch may have been more than a little tense, with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents seated at the same table for the first time, but at least the 38 invitees — including the British, Danish and Norwegian royals — ate well.

The menu showed off regional specialties, prepared by four Michelin-starred chefs. It included Norman caramel-pepper cookies, John Dory, and braised veal.

The 18th-century chateau where the lunch was held, just 7 kilometers (about 3 miles) from Sword Beach, was an important gathering point for the French Resistance, and was at one point used as a war hospital. It was one of the rare buildings in the region left undamaged during the fighting.

Obama and Hollande might not have been too hungry for lunch — each one had two dinners Thursday night.

Obama ate first with Hollande, then nibbled seafood with friends in a discreet Right Bank restaurant. Hollande, after dining with Obama, had a second supper with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama Remembers His “Gramps”

In a wistful moment as Obama addressed veterans assembled on Omaha Beach for the ceremony, he shared how much he missed his own World War II veteran grandfather.

Stanley Dunham, the man Obama called Gramps, was a 26-year-old supply sergeant stationed near the English Channel with the U.S. Army Air Forces when the invasion of Normandy began.

Six weeks later, he crossed the Channel, too, and followed the Allied front across France. A year later, Dunham was on track to fight in Japan when the atom bomb sent him home to Kansas instead.

“As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more,” Obama said as he neared the end of his speech. “I’d be more happy to have him here than this day.”

He elaborated on that thought in an interview that aired on NBC Nightly News Friday.

“He would have been proud to see that what he was a part of so long ago was now being celebrated by a grandson who was the commander in chief of the greatest military on earth,” Obama said in the interview with anchor Brian Williams. “I think he would have been pretty proud and probably more than a little surprised.”

Dunham died in 1992 at age 73.

Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed.

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