Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Biden, world leaders and veterans mark D-Day’s 80th anniversary in France

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — President Biden joined world leaders in Normandy on Thursday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a somber setting where he drew a link between the historic fight to defeat the Nazis and the modern-day battles against authoritarianism and isolationism.

“In their generation, in their hour of trial, the Allied forces of D-Day did their duty,” Biden said, standing before dozens of World War II veterans at the Normandy American Cemetery. “Now the question for us is, in our hour of trial, will we do ours?”

While Biden’s speech Thursday was directed at a global audience — including the more than two dozen heads of state and government who were in attendance — it comes against the backdrop of a fierce domestic political battle between the president and his predecessor, Donald Trump, who addressed the same event five years ago.

During his speech on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Trump hailed the veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 but did not offer similar praise for the global alliances that emerged out of World War II. Biden did not name Trump during his remarks, but he offered an unequivocal endorsement of the global order that the Republican front-runner has trashed, asserting that NATO and other alliances “make us strong.”

“Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago, and it’s not the answer today,” he said to applause, adding that “the struggle between dictatorship and freedom is unending.”

Biden said his message was particularly relevant given the ongoing war in Ukraine, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “tyrant” and pointing out that the NATO alliance has expanded since Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Make no mistake, the autocrats of the world are watching closely to see what happens in Ukraine; to see if we let this illegal aggression go unchecked,” he said. “We cannot let that happen. To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators, is simply unthinkable.”

The president, who arrived in Paris on Wednesday morning and spent the day behind closed doors, began his visit to Normandy on Thursday by greeting World War II veterans who participated in the D-Day landings. Most were in wheelchairs. Some are more than 100 years old.

Biden greeted each veteran one by one, offering a salute or handshake and posing for a photograph. “You saved the world,” he said to one. He gave out special challenge coins he had designed for the occasion. He also shared private moments with several veterans, whispering in their ears and congratulating them after French President Emmanuel Macron awarded them the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.

“Here you came to join your efforts with our own soldiers and to make France a free nation,” Macron said. “And you are back here today, at home, if I may say.”

Among those being honored Thursday was Hilbert Margol, 100, of Jacksonville, Fla., a former soldier who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp, and Roland Martin, 100, of Berkeley, Calif., a former B-17 bomber pilot who was taken captive while on a mission and survived 19 months as a prisoner of war.

During his brief remarks at the D-Day Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony, Biden also singled out “heroes” who “knew beyond any doubt, there are things fighting and dying for.”

The focus in France on Thursday was on the veterans being honored for their role in D-Day. Attention will shift Friday and Saturday to a visit by Zelensky — his fourth in France since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and to state visit treatment for Biden. He and Macron are expected “to discuss a wide range of global challenges and bilateral issues,” the White House said.

The Bidens also attended the International Ceremony at Omaha Beach, alongside leaders including Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The event featured World-War-II-era landing craft, parachuters and reenactors with weaponry from the 1940s in a tribute to the troops who helped carry out the largest naval, air and land assault ever. Despite high casualties, the operation helped establish the U.S. military as the world’s premier fighting force and deepened global alliances that have endured for eight decades.

The celebration of that military triumph comes against the backdrop of the plodding war in Ukraine, where Russia has been making gains in recent months after more than two years of fighting. The war’s heavy cost has put pressure on politicians in the United States and Europe and at times strained relations between Washington and its European counterparts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend the events in Normandy, which will give him an opportunity to make his case for additional military support for Kyiv ahead of next week’s Group of Seven summit in Italy, which brings together the world’s wealthiest democracies. Putin was not invited to the ceremony, despite the massive casualties the Soviet Union sustained battling Nazi Germany during World War II. Russia’s “war of aggression” in Ukraine, the site of Europe’s largest war since the 1940s, made it inappropriate for Moscow to attend the D-Day events, the French presidency said.

Other world leaders also remarked on the links between the past and present.

Echoing a line spoken by his grandfather, King George VI, during World War II, King Charles III said that when the allied forces faced the “supreme test” of D-Day, this “remarkable wartime generation … did not flinch when the moment came.”

Wearing military dress uniform, Charles, who is receiving treatment for an unspecified form of cancer, stood at a lectern and spoke in a strong voice, before laying a wreath at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer.

Not far away, his son and heir, Prince William, attended a ceremony at Juno, the Normandy beach where Canadian forces landed.

“Standing here today in peaceful silence, it is almost impossible to grasp the courage it would have taken to run into the fury of battle that very day,” he said, adding that “Canada and the U.K. continue to stand, side by side as we did in 1944. Just as strong together, 80 years later.”

Biden has pointed to his administration’s record of building alliances amid the war in Ukraine as a top selling point for his reelection as he seeks to draw a sharp contrast with Trump. In an interview with Time magazine, Biden said Trump “wanted to just abandon” U.S. alliances, and suggested that the former president would ultimately pull the country out of NATO if he returns to the White House.

“The decisions we make in the last couple of years, in the next four years, are going to determine the future of Europe for a long time to come,” Biden said in the May 28 interview. “And so that’s why we cannot let NATO fail, we have to build that both politically and economically.”

In France, anniversaries of the Normandy landings are always celebrated solemnly — but even more so this year, likely to be the last decennial where some of those who fought on D-Day are alive and well enough to take part.

While D-Day commemorations are a unifying moment for many French people, geopolitics and domestic politics often come into play as well. This year, the anniversary coincides with the European Parliament elections, which could see far-right factions across the European Union make large gains.

In France, the populist National Rally party and its leader, Jordan Bardella, is far ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition in the polls. Macron hopes to use the D-Day celebrations, with 25 heads of state and government in Normandy to celebrate the triumph of liberty over tyranny, to argue implicitly for the benefits of his global, pro-European vision over the National Rally’s nationalist one.

Biden has kept a relatively low profile since arriving in France. He held no public events Wednesday and was a spectator for most of Thursday’s memorial events, speaking only briefly to the gathered crowd. But his campaign used the moment to release a new ad attacking Trump for his treatment of veterans.

Biden plans to return to Normandy on Friday to give remarks directed at the American people. That speech, the White House said, will focus on “the importance of defending freedom and democracy.” Aides said the president’s remarks will echo themes that are central to his reelection pitch against Trump.

Biden gave a bit of a preview during his remarks Thursday.

“We’re not far off from the time when the last living voices of those who fought and bled on D-Day will no longer be with us,” he said. “So we have a special obligation. We can’t let what happened here be lost in the silence of the years to come.”

He added: “The fact that they were heroes here that day does not absolve us from what we have to do today. Democracy is never guaranteed. Every generation must preserve it, defend it and fight for it.”

Olorunnipa and Timsit reported from Paris. William Booth in London contributed to this report.

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