Biden marks 80th anniversary of Normandy D-Day invasion

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — President Biden joined world leaders in Normandy on Thursday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, drawing connections between the historic battle to defeat the Nazis and the modern-day fight against authoritarianism and isolationism in a sombre atmosphere.

“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. “The question for us now is, in our hour of trial, will we do our duty?”

Though Biden’s speech on Thursday was addressed to a global audience — including more than two dozen heads of state and government — 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 praised the veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 but did not offer similar praise for the global alliances that emerged from World War II. Biden did not mention Trump by name during his remarks, but he offered a clear endorsement of the global order that the Republican front-runner has rejected, insisting that NATO and other alliances “make us stronger.”

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“Separatism was not the answer 80 years ago and it is not the answer today,” he said to thunderous applause, adding that “the struggle between dictatorship and freedom never ends.”

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

“There is no doubt that the world’s dictators are watching events in Ukraine closely to see if we will allow this illegal invasion to go unchecked,” he said. “We cannot allow that to happen. Surrendering to thugs, to bowing to dictators, is simply unthinkable.”

The President arrived in Paris on Wednesday morning and spent the entire day behind closed doors. He greeted World War II veterans who took part in the D-Day landings, some of whom were over 100 years old, during his visit to Normandy.

“You saved the world,” Biden told a veteran during a meeting Thursday with troops, most of whom were in wheelchairs.

Biden greeted each of the veterans one by one, saluting or shaking hands and posing for photos. He gave out special challenge coins 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 him the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.

“You came here to fight alongside our soldiers to make France a free nation,” Macron said. “And if I may say so, you are back here today, at home.”

Those honored Thursday also included Hilbert Margol, 100, of Jacksonville, Florida, a former soldier who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp, and Roland Martin, 100, of Berkeley, California, a former B-17 bomber pilot who was captured while on a mission and held as a prisoner of war for 19 months.

During his brief remarks at the D-Day anniversary commemoration ceremony, Biden also mentioned the “heroes” who “knew without a doubt that there are things worth fighting and dying for.”

Later on Thursday, Biden will join First Lady Jill Biden to lay a wreath at the Normandy American Cemetery. Finally, the Biden couple will attend the international ceremony at Omaha Beach, where several top dignitaries, including Macron, are also expected to pay tribute to the troops who helped carry out the largest naval, air and ground assault ever mounted. Despite heavy 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.

That military victory is being celebrated against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, where Russia has been gaining ground 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 lay out his case for additional military aid for Kiev 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 Soviet Union suffering heavy losses fighting Nazi Germany during World War II. The French presidential office said Russia’s “aggressive war” in Ukraine, the site of Europe’s biggest battle since the 1940s, made it inappropriate for Moscow to attend D-Day events.

Other world leaders also commented on the connections between the past and the present.

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

Dressed in military uniform, Charles, who is undergoing treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, stood on a lectern and spoke in a rousing voice before laying a wreath at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer.

A short distance 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 imagine the courage that was required to face the horror of war that day,” he said, adding that “Canada and Britain stand together today as they did in 1944. They are as strong together as ever, 80 years later.”

Biden has called his administration’s record on building alliances during the war in Ukraine the most important plank for his re-election as he seeks to draw a sharp contrast with Trump. In an interview with Time magazine, Biden said Trump “just wanted to abandon American alliances,” and suggested the former president would eventually pull the country out of NATO upon returning to the White House.

“The decisions we make over the last couple of years, over the next four years, will determine the future of Europe for a long time to come,” Biden said in the May 28 interview. “And so we can’t let NATO fail, we have to strengthen it both politically and economically.”

In France, the anniversary of the Normandy landings is always celebrated with fanfare – but even more so this year, as this is likely the last decade that most of the people who fought on D-Day are alive and healthy enough to attend the celebrations in person.

The sense of nostalgia that followed was clearly evident in French newspaper editorials in the days leading up to the anniversary. Le Monde columnist Sylvie Kauffmann wrote about scenes of American veterans boarding planes bound for France to attend the anniversary celebrations, surrounded by cheering crowds.

“If the enthusiasm of the public cheering them on is not pretentious, it is because everyone has anticipated that this 80th anniversary in 2024 will be one of the last anniversaries on which we can hope to see the presence of the heroes of World War II,” he wrote.

The celebration of D-Day is a moment of unity for many French people, but geopolitics and domestic politics often play a part. This year, the 80th anniversary coincides with European elections, which could see far-right groups make big gains across Europe.

In France, the populist National Rally party and its leader, Jordan Bardella, are far ahead in the polls of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition. Macron hopes to use the D-Day celebrations, with 25 heads of state celebrating the triumph of freedom over tyranny in Normandy, to argue clearly for the benefits of his globalist, pro-Europe outlook over the nationalist approach of the National Rally.

Amid all the pomp and pageantry on Thursday morning, some common concerns also emerged, including complaints from Paris commuters about heavy traffic jams caused by D-Day celebrations and unannounced highway closures connected to Biden’s visit.

Despite the fanfare, Biden has maintained a relatively low profile since arriving in France. He held no public events on Wednesday and plans to be a mere spectator at most of the memorial events on Thursday, speaking only briefly to the gathered crowd.

Biden plans to return to Normandy on Friday. The remarks were made while addressing the American people. The White House said the speech would focus on the “importance of protecting freedom and democracy.”

Biden gave a little preview of that during his remarks on Thursday.

“We are not far from the time when the last surviving voices of those who fought and bled on D-Day will no longer be with us,” he said. “We therefore have a special obligation. We cannot afford to lose what happened here in the silence of the coming years.”

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.”

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

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