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Slow thaw in relations between U.S., France

French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush aren’t quite kissing and making up, but the silent treatment is over ahead of the D-Day commemorations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush aren’t quite kissing and making up, but the silent treatment is over. To hear both leaders tell it, there never really was a problem in the first place.

Days before Bush arrives in France to help commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day, the two leaders began setting the stage for a new start.

“I never was angry with the president of the United States ... and I never had the feeling in my relations with him that he was angry with me,” Chirac said Wednesday during a news conference.

“We had different points of view,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and France’s leading role in opposing the war. “That’s normal. Each affirms his own convictions.”

Bush was equally conciliatory.

“I was never angry with the French. France is a longtime ally,” Bush told the weekly magazine Paris Match, which appears on newsstands Thursday. “Jacques told it to me clearly. He didn’t believe the use of force was necessary. We debated it as friends.”

'Freedom fries' and 'Old Europe'
The facts speak differently. In the run-up to the war, France-bashing got so intense that “french fries” turned into “freedom fries” and tensions between Washington and Paris was palpable. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke of a “New Europe” and an “Old Europe,” with France squarely in the latter.

At one point, there were fears that the trans-Atlantic alliance might be broken beyond repair.

The rift has, if anything, underscored that the long-standing allies need each other. Sunday’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings that crushed Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and led to the defeat of Nazi Germany is clearly seen as a chance to patch things up.

Even first lady Laura Bush joined in Wednesday to assure the French that her husband is a “man of the heart.”

“I think the French will be with us for the reconstruction of Iraq, to help the Iraqis build a democracy, to gain freedom after the oppression of Saddam Hussein,” she said in an interview with state-run France-2 television. Her remarks, like the U.S. president’s, were translated into French.

Charged with symbolism
The D-Day commemorations will be charged with symbolism. For the first time, a German leader, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, will take part. He will join Bush and some 15 other heads of state.

“I rejoice that on the occasion of June 6, there can be something essential,” Chirac said, “that is, the strong recognition by the French, and more generally the Europeans, toward the Americans.”

American soldiers “came at a particularly dramatic moment for Europe and for France, bringing their help and their blood,” the French president said.

On Sunday, Chirac will express French thanks to the allies for liberating the country from the Nazis, presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said Wednesday. However, she added that this day of remembrance would also be an occasion for Chirac to “remind that we have a duty to be faithful to the values” of democracy, law and liberty.