The Dark Meaning and High Stakes of D-Day This Year
This commentary first appeared in Les Echos
Seventy years after D-Day, France is suffering a deep moral crisis as it marks that seminal event on its beaches. And beyond, all of a disoriented Europe must rediscover the meaning of its liberation.
Every 10 years, we commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of those young American, British and Canadian soldiers without whom Europe would not be what it has become, a land of peace and reconciliation. This year, such sentiments will undoubtedly be marked with a bit more nostalgia - and far more concern.
The nostalgia will be for veterans, whose numbers obviously grow fewer with each passing year. The concern, meanwhile, is the result of what has been happening lately in Europe.
Let's start here, in France. Even the country's western regions, which are traditionally Christian and humanist in spirit - including the Manche department, the land of Alexis de Tocqueville and home to the Normandy beaches - have seen their municipalities "eaten away" by support for the far-right National Front party.
"That's going to be awkward welcoming American and German veterans on Utah Beach," the mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont quipped last week.
Just 10 years ago, we were still celebrating the rebirth of Europe on the shores of Normandy. For the first time, Germany was part of the commemorations. Yesterday's enemies had become today's best allies. And there was a bond in the joint position against the Iraq war.
The irony was that the liberator appeared almost isolated. This America, so noble and generous yesterday, was jeopardizing its image in questionable military adventures. That year, in the town of Saint-Lô, nicknamed "the capital of the ruins" after the Liberation, I presided over a debate among veterans, survivors of the American air raids and local high school students. Many older people still expressed their gratitude towards the U.S. "You destroyed our town, but you freed us," was the sentiment.
But younger people read the 1944 events through the distorting lens of the Iraq war, with the feelings flipped around: "Why did you destroy our town?" It was my task to explain and recount the link between Omaha Beach and the Europe of Erasmus student exchange programs.
To my great regret, Germany was not yet part of the commemorations in 1994. It was too soon, I was told. Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl could stand side-by-side holding hands in Verdun (to mark World War I), but not on Omaha Beach. The context was complex. The Wall had fallen, "kidnapped Europe," to quote Milan Kundera's elegant phrasing, had rediscovered its history and its geography. It had also revived its old demons. The war in the Balkans was the tragic illustration of that.
But in 2014, is Europe still Europe? Is its model not being smashed to pieces under the joint blows of harsh economic realities and the general mediocrity of its political elite?
America, also, is not really America anymore, as if in its relation with Europe, it had given the best of itself between the exceptional courage of June 1944 and the enlightened generosity of the Marshall Plan.
As for Russia, also rightfully present at the commemorations, it finds itself dreaming of having become the USSR again. Not the country that rediscovered a form of international "virginity" in its fight against a monster more terrible than itself, Nazi Germany, but the ambitious empire, eager for revenge or conquests.
But is the country hosting the ceremonies, France, not the sickest of all? The threat to its freedom is not coming from the outside this time. It is not Hitler's Germany invading France. The country seems to be consumed by doubt. A prisoner of its inner demons, France seems ready to surrender to the "party of fear," personified by the smiling personality of Marine Le Pen.
To counter this real threat, which is challenging its values, the savior will not come from the outside. Only France can find within itself the necessary resources to take on this moral challenge, probably the most serious one since the end of World War II. There are personalities that are for France what Angela Merkel undoubtedly is for Germany and, maybe, Matteo Renzi for Italy. Both the right need to do something to stop what is fundamentally a far-right party, with which making pacts is simply not an option.
The threat weighing on France is not Europe, but France itself. And this applies to all the countries where xenophobic populism triumphed in the recent European Parliament elections.
In this week of commemorating D-Day, it is not the phrase, "Of the past let us make a clean slate" that we should follow. Quite the opposite. A calendar coincidence allows us to return to our senses, as we are faced with the risk of a headlong rush into an unknown that looks incredibly like an escape into an unfortunate and far too familiar past.
Who could think that Angela Merkel's Germany and Marine Le Pen's France could, one day, just work together? The former thinks in terms of the Union, community and alliances. The latter, due to a fascist tradition, needs enemies to exist.