D-Day dreams confront today's squabbling Europe

The little towns of Normandy are awash in flags, tourists, honoured veterans and the idealism that flowed from the Allies' D-Day landings 70 years ago Friday. What a contrast with today's jangled Europe, Margaret Evans reports.

In Normandy, the flags are out and so are the veterans, but the post-War ideals have changed

Excerpts of ceremony held in France 17:35

Normandy's tawny beaches have been groomed, and the little wartime villages that dot the coast have been dipped in both the good will of their residents and the colours of the Allied flags that sprout out of garden walls and window sills like little gems.

All this, of course, is in preparation for Friday's 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings here.

The place is swollen with tourists and history enthusiasts drinking beer with bonhomie in street cafes, or careening around corners in WW II jeeps dressed in vintage uniforms.

Catch a glimpse of one in a stone alleyway with an American flag dangling off the back and you can feel like you've slipped back in time.

This strange co-mingling of the past with the present can be slightly disorienting, all the more so because of the rather confused state that present-day Europe finds itself in.

"I think it's still very important today to keep in mind what happened 70 years ago," the French political scientists Dominique Moisi said in an interview this week. "But it looks so abstract and difficult."

Today, he says "You have the images of the war in Iraq, you have the images of the Snowden affair … the Americans are spying on us!

"And on the other side the Americans say, 'well we liberated Europe 70 years ago and look they are voting for the National Front in France. All these sacrifices for nothing … we saved them from Nazism and today they are voting for fascist forces!'"

D-Day veterans attend a commemorative badge ceremony in Caen, France, on June 4, 2014. Some 18 heads of state will attend ceremonies bringing together 3,000 veterans along France's northern Normandy coast where Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944 in a seaborne invasion that sped up the defeat of Nazi Germany. (Reuters)

Moisi has reason, of course, to feel this way. The European Union is still reeling from the results of the elections to the European Parliament at the end of May, elections that delivered more than a few bloody noses across the continent.

Extreme-right, far-left, populist, anti-Brussels and anti-immigrant parties all made gains, the really big blows landing in Britain and France.

Here in France, the National Front ("Say no to Brussels. Say Yes to France") beat out both mainstream parties for the biggest share of the vote.

It leader is Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie, who founded the Front, once famously called the gas chambers "a minor point" in the history of the Second World War.

His daughter has worked hard to make the party more "mainstream," but its critics say that has been little more than a cosmetic change.

Negative Europe

Catherine Fieschi, the director of Counterpoint consultancy firm and an expert on populist movements, doesn't believe the success of Europe's current crop of anti-immigration parties, such as the National Front or the UK's Independence Party (UKIP), necessarily signals a widespread rise in racism or xenophobia.

She puts it down more to other factors, particularly the growing disenchantment with Europe's cumbersome bureaucracy.

"I think this is a much more long-term development," Fieschi says. "This is about people's expectations of politics being repeatedly disappointed."

"The European institutions have come to symbolize everything that voters resent about politics," she says. "It's opaque, it's technocratic, it's seen as unaccountable, it's bureaucratic, it's slow. This is an awful lot of negatives ...

"So unless Europe and the European institutions change the way they do politics then I think that disappointment is set to grow."

A line of flags of the countries that took part in the D-day landings stands on the Normandy coast near Juno Beach, where Canadian troops landed. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings. (Ellen Mauro / CBC)

She also acknowledges, although not to the same degree as Moisi, that the language of intolerance as it pertains to racism and xenophobia has been allowed to slip more and more into Europe's mainstream politics.

"That doesn't mean that attitudes have changed for the worse, but just that when there is a protest to be made these are the reservoirs of vocabulary that are readymade for people to use."

Cold War echoes

The rise in anti-EU sentiment is also not so surprising in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

But it has been disturbing nonetheless for the idealists who believed in the healing power of a united Europe and a more tolerant continent after the ravages of two world wars.

The EU's founding fathers sought to bind France and Germany together in an ever-closer union, a desire that finds currency especially on anniversaries like those of the D-Day landings — which also celebrate the trans-Atlantic link between North America and Europe.

But the National Front, with what some call its "France for the French" message, tripled its vote in the Calvados region. And that was despite this being home to the Normandy Beaches and all the good will that comes with the yearly reminders of the trans-Atlantic and Franco-German partnerships that these commemorations ceremonies represent.

Canadian veteran Daniel Galipeau of Huntington, Que., signs an autograph in Bernieres-sur-Mer on Tuesday. A sapper with the 16 Field Engineers, Galipeau landed on this very beach in the morning on D-Day. (Reuters)

Add in the Cold War echoes brought on by Russia's recent adventures in Ukraine, and you have a very rattled, insecure continent at the moment.

Even Finland, with its studied neutrality is renewing the debate about joining NATO in the face of Russia's perceived territorial ambitions, a Finnish journalist friend told me.

The Russia-Ukraine confrontation is regularly touted these days as the greatest crisis to face Europe since the end of the Second World War.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will sit next to several of his former G8 counterparts for the first time since Russia annexed Crimea when they all attend the main D-Day commemoration event.

The recently elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose army is in a running battle with pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, is also expected.

Imperial evil

"I'm glad Russia is here," says Moisi, himself a native of Normandy and whose father survived Auschwitz. "What we are commemorating is the common fight against a terrible enemy.

"But now Russia is playing with imperialism again, and America is less interested in Europe and Europeans are not in the mood for commemoration but for recrimination against their own government and against Brussels. which is a symbol for a new kind of imperial evil. So it's a strange moment."

Moisi says it is a perfect time to "resuscitate the lessons of D-Day." And in one of the ironies of history, much will depend on Germany.         

"The real force in Europe in 2014 is the enemy of 1944," he says. "The country that was defeated has emerged as a reassuring presence … it's an interesting cycle of history."

One of the Canadian veterans who will be honoured Friday at Juno Beach is Ernest Cote, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time and went on to a distinguished diplomatic career.

He will be 101 next week, and I asked him what he thought of the state of the world today compared to those dark days 70 years ago. What he had to say was: "Freedom is very hard to defend in peacetime." 

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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