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The Longest Weekend

photo: anti war demo, drop bush

Anti–war demonstration in Paris on Saturday.

Marriage in Bègles

Paris:– Monday, 7 June 2004:– The 60th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy was carried off successfully yesterday by a cast of tens of thousands, lead by Président Jacques Chirac. As big shows go, this was probably one of the biggest to be seen for a long time. So far as known, there were no hitches and a good time was had by all, perhaps even by George Bush.

Sixty years after Tuesday, 6. June 1944 is a fair time, but exactly right for a last hurrah. Many of the original participants are in their 80s and will not be around for another decade. Politics are also fickle, so it may have been an only chance for many of the heads of state who took part.

But put these sobering thoughts aside. The weather contributed an immense service to the enterprize by being unseasonably fair. It allowed many who are frail to take part in the numerous outside ceremonies, or to simply be again where they were 60 years ago – in weather as perfect for it as the original weather was almost not good enough.

For many of the veterans who returned to Normandy for the first time for this weekend, they had difficulty believing the Norman beaches were the same place that they saw in a blur as they frantically dodgedphoto: cuban flags hellish machinegun fire, mortars, mines and cannons. The sea was as cold as a leaking coffin as they dived off the loading ramps of landing craft into the dirty chop, facing a hail of bullets and a maze of obstacles.

More marchers in Saturday's demonstration.

On the first day, the infamous longest one, thousands of allied troops died in the fierce fight to get ashore. Once ashore they died on the beaches. Beyond the beaches, dropped by parachute, they died in flooded fields, crashed in gliders, and were mowed down by the defenders.

Meanwhile Allied bombers flew unrelenting missions over Normandy, dropping bombs on everything strategic – rails, bridges and roads. Bombs missed and civilians ran for cover.

The defending German armies made Allied forces pay dearly for any advance. With more men, more guns, more tanks, more bullets, and total air cover, the Allies had terrible difficulty overcoming the defenders and their earned reputation for prevailing against all odds. Almost everywhere the Wehrmacht prevented the Allied forces from achieving D–Day objectives.

But the entire bulk of the Allied armies and their overwhelming arsenal of firepower were concentrated on Normandy. When the Germans were totally smashed and wrecked there, they slowly gave way before the avalanche of men and fire and steel.

No other battle in the west came as close to matching the ferocity of WWI. Many units of both sides suffered over 100 percent casualties in the course of the ten weeks following the invasion. For the Allies this rate of loss was only redeemed by final victory.

60 Years Later

Less than a year after the invasion the war was over in Europe. Enemies of then have been in the former category for three generations now, but memories have a way of lingering beyond theirphoto: herald tribune, 7 june 1944 original carriers. Enough time has passed for former Allies to become enemies and come out the other side, if not as 'Allies,' at least as respected co–members of the world's community.

The Herald Tribune from Wednesday, 7. June 1944.

Next week, in what was the European war theatre of WWII, there will be elections for the European parliament – recently expanded to include 25 countries. It makes WWII seem like a long time ago and Europe seems too intertwined to return to anything similar.

On each of the decades marking the anniversary there have been memorial ceremonies in Normandy. This year's event may be the last because the tide of time is erasing the survivors. Somehow, for this year there has been a collective awareness that there won't be another occasion, for celebration or for bitterness. The war is over.

Therefore, it was fitting that Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was invited to this year's ceremonies. Also fitting was it to invite Russia's President Vladimir Putin – for Russia bled while the Allies prepared for the 'second front.' It was the first time in Normandy for both leaders.

Without the presence of the veterans and their families and without all the others who turned up to share the occasion with the residents of Normandy, Président Jacques Chirac's overall managing of the memorial event would have been like one –handed applause, but everybody came together.

Many heads of state were on hand along with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, to see Jacques Chirac pin Legion of Honor medals on 14 veterans representing each of the 14 nationalities involved in the invasion. He kissed them on each cheek. At Arromanches, when 142 veterans paraded in front of the official stands, the applause went on so much longer than planned, on and on.

President George Bush paid homage to the 9300 American soldiers buried in the cemetery overlooking the most difficult landing beach, called Omaha. "America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes," Mr. Bush said. "America would do it again for our friends."

The surprisingly good weather aided in keeping the mood focused on reconciliation and remembrance. Perhaps even some of it was gay, judging from TV views of Saint–Marie–Eglise where France–2 put on its 'Longest Night' show from midnight to dawn on Sunday. On Saturday evening smoke from sausages grilling drifted in the clear and still air over the town.

At one point, the high–tech panels at Arromanches which had been showing D–Day images and film spread over 11 vertical screens, fixed on one single image of a banner across a street in a liberated village. It read in English, 'Thank you for deliverance.'

Jacques' Longest Weekend

Without doubt the weekend of ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the D–Day landings was the most complex show put on by France in recent years. In comparison, the staging of Olympic games might be mere kid's stuff.

First, there were all the arrangement to accommodate the veterans and their families. For these rooms and suites were booked in Paris' best hotels and transport was arranged for airport connections and for transport to Normandy. The veterans were the heart and soul of the show.

There were something like 22 heads of state plus some royalty invited, as well as the presidents of the United States and Russia. Allied troops were also imported to be part of the ceremonies.

The French also added many army, navy and airforce units both in Normandy, and in Paris, where they joined thousandsphoto: reds, banner, kid of extra police on duty. The area of the US and British embassies in Paris was turned into a fortified city within a city in the 8th arrondissement. Many hotels were completely taken over by the American delegation.

Some of Saturday's '100% Reds.'

Whole towns in Normandy pitched in to ease the way for an estimated million visitors. Coverage by radio, TV, and the press was non–stop, in addition to related documentary and variety programs. And then it came down to yesterday, when the climax consisted of at least four major events, with Jacques Chirac as host at each.

And on this bright day of Monday as the grass in Normandy is being given back to the cows, six 80–year–old veterans climbed into a plane and strapped on parachutes, and jumped back into Normandy, again. They had wanted to do it on Sunday, but were deemed too fragile. This is how the longest weekend was.

Gay Marriage in Bègles

France's first homosexual marriage was performed Saturday morning in Bègles, near Bordeaux. It was done by Bègles' mayor, Noël Mamère, a leading member of the Greens Party, known as 'Les Verts.' The event saw 60 friends and family members present for the ceremony, 150 journalists, and a couple hundred pro and contra demonstrators.

The national prosecutor in Bordeaux has already said a case will be opened against the mayor for performing an illegal marriage. The mayor risks a fine of 4.5 euros, plus another fine of 1500€. He can also be stripped of his office, 'for administrative reasons.' The mayor was elected by popular vote – while the prosecutor was appointed by the Ministry of Justice in Paris.

The mayor has been under extreme pressure from the government, from the prime minister on down. If the marriage is annulled by the French courts, the protagonists intend to take the matter to the European Human Rights Court. This court has rendered judgements against the French state in the past.

The right–wing government is treating this issue as if the République were in grave danger. Yet againphoto: tuileries pool the government is misjudging popular sentiment – possibly total indifference – to make a major issue out of a minor molehill. Doing it eight days before important European elections is completely in keeping with the right–wing's notion of timing. They may have fallen into a 'green' trap.

On the other hand, if one were to give the government credit for brains, it could be using confrontation to get Brussels to force it to accept a 'fait accompli' instead of it simply deciding to change French law to conform to European Human Rights standards. Then they can say to their more conservative supporters that 'Brussels made them do it.'

It is interesting to see exactly which European measures France chooses to ignore. There never seems to be any shame, in the home of Human Rights, caused by ignoring Brussels when it suggests that France might be a bit reactionary in this area.

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