Wreaths, parades and parachute-drops honored history's largest
amphibious assault on June 6, 1944, when 160,000 U.S., British and
Canadian troops waded ashore to confront German forces, hastening
its defeat and the advent of peace in Europe.
Flanked by stooped war veterans, some in wheelchairs, U.S. President
Barack Obama joined French President Francois Hollande to
commemorate victory and reaffirm U.S-French solidarity before the
9,387 white marble headstones of fallen U.S. soldiers at the
Normandy American Cemetery.
Obama said the 50-mile (80 km) stretch of Normandy coastline - where
allied soldiers landed under fire on beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah,
Gold, Sword and Juno - was a "tiny sliver of sand upon which hung
more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human
"Omaha - Normandy - this was democracy's beachhead," said Obama.
"And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped
the security and well-being of all posterity."
The president sought to link the sacrifices of World War Two to U.S.
servicemen killed in combat since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the
United States by al Qaeda Islamist militants.
The "9/11 generation of service members" understood that "people
cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for
it", he said.
Hollande declared that France "would never forget the solidarity
between our two nations, solidarity based on a shared ideal, an
aspiration, a passion for freedom".
Speaking earlier in the city of Caen, which was devastated in the
fighting, Hollande honored French civilians killed during the allied
invasion, calling D-Day "24 hours that changed the world and forever
Twenty-one foreign leaders are attending the series of
commemorations, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prime
Minister David Cameron, Canada's Stephen Harper, Germany's Angela
Merkel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
But while the unity of allies and their bloody sacrifices were the
central theme of D-Day remembrance, government leaders were sounding
each other out in private on the most serious security crisis in
Europe for more than two decades: Ukraine.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the current standoff in
eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian
separatists have plunged Moscow's relations with the United States
and European Union to a post-Cold War low.
Fighting continued in eastern Ukraine as Ukrainian forces fended off
an attack by pro-Russian separatists on a border post there late on
Thursday. The attack was repelled by air strikes but the insurgency
has escalated in the past two weeks, killing scores and prompting
some families to flee.
French diplomats say Hollande hopes to get Putin to at least shake
the hand of Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on the
sidelines of the ceremonies, in what could represent a first step in
Hollande discussed Ukraine at separate dinners on Thursday with both
Obama and Putin in Paris, but officials reported no breakthrough.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who attended the talks, told
RTL radio there was no question for now of a new round of sanctions
against Russian interests.
Merkel and Putin had an hour-long meeting in Normandy on Friday
which a Putin spokesman said "completely focused" on Ukraine. He
gave no other details.
[to top of second column]
In Berlin, a government spokesman said Merkel had told Putin that
Russia had "great responsibility" to help bring peace to Ukraine.
In an article for the newspaper Ouest France published on Friday,
the German leader said: "Recent weeks have shown us that dangerous
old ways of thinking are by no means banished from the history
"Peace and freedom can be put in doubt as the Ukraine
conflict painfully shows us. It is a great worry to see new rifts
and dividing lines forming," Merkel wrote.
Putin, who has said he is open to meeting both Obama and Poroshenko
in France, has yet to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian
president-elect who is set to be sworn in on Saturday, although
Russia is sending its ambassador to his inauguration.
A Group of Seven (G7) summit of industrialized nations in Brussels
on Thursday, from which Putin was excluded, urged Russia to work
with Kiev's new authorities to restore stability in eastern Ukraine
or face possible tougher sanctions.
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, speaking just
before the cemetery tribute, told Reuters the main parallel between
1944 and now was the strength of US-allied ties.
"You cannot underestimate the power of a coalition and an alliance
when it goes into action," Greenert said.
On Thursday, Obama told reporters the West would "have no choice to
respond" with new sanctions if Russia failed to recognize Ukraine's
new government and work to calm pro-Russian gunmen in its former
"There is a path in which Russia has the capacity to engage directly
with President Poroshenko now. He should take it."
Behind the facade of G7 unity, differences emerged over a 1.2
billion euro ($1.63 billion) French contract to sell two Mistral
helicopter carriers to Russia. Obama said Paris should have pressed
"the pause button" on the deal.
Foreign Minister Fabius said the contracts, mostly paid up, stood
"for many jobs."
"The French tradition, which is the same as the United States', is
to honor its contracts."
But Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio a
decision would be made given the international situation later this
year when the first ship is due to be delivered.
Washington says the deal sends the wrong message to Russia at a time
of sanctions imposed by Western states on Moscow over the conflict
($1 = 0.7345 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Nick Vinocur in Paris, Alexei Anishchuk in
Deauville; Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mark Heinrich and
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.