In Normandy, US flag symbolizes the liberation of 1944

The Bar de l'Espérance on the main square of this small Normandy town is a riot of red, white, and blue. Stars and Stripes drape every wall, rosettes decorate every nook and cranny, and hanging from the ceiling is an artifact not often seen in Europe these days - an image of the Statue of Liberty emblazoned with the words, "I Love USA."

Odette Durosier, the cafe's owner, had pulled out all the stops for Sunday's 60th anniversary of D-Day to honor the men who came ashore a few miles away, on Omaha Beach. "You have to bow to the Americans and the others who came here," she said last week, as she put on the finishing touches to her decorations.

But she does not want her message to be misunderstood. "The American flag means freedom, not the American government," she said, polishing a glass behind the bar. "It's not a question of politics."

A customer cut in. "For us, that flag means liberty. Today in other parts of the world it represents more like an invader," said Françoise Castel.

Against a background of the Iraq war, which remains intensely unpopular in France and elsewhere in Europe, the anniversary was an opportunity for the citizens of Normandy to remember the days when nobody doubted the purity of American arms.

Sixty years ago, when President Roosevelt prayed on national radio for God to bless the Normandy invasion as "a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity," few around the world questioned his view.

Today, suggests Christophe Mezerette, a local journalist, "George Bush does not seem very credible" when casting the US-led war on terror - and the Iraqi front of that war - in the same light. "It is seen here as a war of interests, with something else behind it," he said.

That has not stopped him and his wife from hanging an American flag from the gables of their home, alongside the Normandy pennant - two golden lions rampant on a red background. "We know that veterans will come by here, and the flag is a sign we have not forgotten them."

Jean-Jacques Gravey, a retired plumber who lives just around the corner from a street named in honor of the 2nd American Division, remembers when he looked out of the window of a friend's house where he had gone for shelter, and saw men from that division for the first time in June 1944.

"It was a joy for us," he recalls. The American flag he hangs on his front wall every June, he said, is "a recognition of the men who liberated us...a tribute to the American nation and the soldiers."

He laments, however, that wars aren't the same today. "The war now seems to me more like an economic war for oil," he said. "Sixty years ago it was for peoples' freedom."

French President Jacques Chirac, speaking at the American cemetery above Omaha Beach Sunday, did not make that point, though he was one of Europe's fiercest opponents of the war in Iraq. The opposition Socialist party leader, François Hollande, however, was less constrained.

In an open letter to Mr. Bush, which he enlarged and tied to the façade of his party headquarters, Mr. Hollande criticized the Iraq invasion. Though he concluded, "For us, America is still the generosity and strength of the men of June 6th 1944."

In Normandy, that is very much the mood. "Our debt will always exist, but that doesn't mean we always have to agree with America," said Mr. Mezerette. Last year, when some US politicians and newspapers vilified France over its opposition to the invasion of Iraq, "We Normans took the criticism very badly," Mezerette said.

So did some American vets. Visiting the graves of six comrades at the American cemetery last week, William Tucker was indignant. "The veterans who fought in Normandy did not have any regard for those who besmirched the French" last year, said Mr. Tucker, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne parachute drop on Sainte-Mère-Église, one of the most dramatic episodes of D-Day.

In the early summer sunshine that bathed the American and French flags planted in pairs by each white cross and Star of David in the American cemetery Sunday, however, all spats were set aside. "At this time of the year," said Mezerette, "we put aside our little criticisms of the United States in order to remember what was done."

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