During the D-Day invasion 60 years ago this weekend, the Allied forces used massive firepower to rout Nazi forces from this strip of French coast. On Sunday's anniversary, thousands of troops will again be on alert — this time to prevent a possible terrorist attack at ceremonies marking the event.
Ahead of the anniversary, French and American military helicopters flew zig-zag patterns across the bucolic Normandy countryside, looking for security threats.
The tightest security measures will be in place Sunday, when President Bush joins French President Jacques Chirac to honor thousands of war dead.
Against a backdrop of continued al-Qaida terrorist threats and protests over the war in Iraq, the airspace and water transport in the area will be closed and road traffic brought to a halt for miles around.
France's defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said in a radio interview Thursday that 15,000 French troops would be on hand for security, with an equal number mobilized to react to any incident.
"This is the most important (peacetime) operation ever organized in France," Alliot-Marie said. She noted that the measures were precautionary, and said French authorities had not received any specific threat to the D-Day ceremonies.
"With a very large number of heads of state and government, it could be a pretext for terrorists" to strike, she said. On Friday, Alliot-Marie visited the city of Caen in Normandy to review security preparations. She was accompanied by Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Heads of state
In addition to Bush and Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth II, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Australian Prime Minister John Howard will attend. Leaders from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Poland and New Zealand will also make up the contingent of some 20 heads of state and government.
More than one million people from around the world are expected to visit Normandy during the D-Day anniversary.
French officials say two AWAC surveillance planes will fly overhead to keep an eye on a wide area around the events. The defense minister said Mirage-2000 fighters will be on stand-by at nearby airbases, able to reach any area in Normandy "in 10 minutes."
A special squad that reacts to chemical and biological attacks recently went through a practice exercise, French media reported.
The security has come at a cost. Some reports estimate the government is spending over 100 million euros, or $122 million, for the week-long operation.
Visits by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — invited for the first time this year — will add extra layers to security.
France has been on a nationwide red alert all week.
Bush arrives in Paris on Saturday, when he will have dinner with Chirac. During a stopover in Italy, demonstrators protesting against the war in Iraq were kept far from the presidential entourage.
French authorities have taken similar measures. On Saturday, protests have been banned from central Paris, including Chirac's Elysee palace, the prime minister's office and the U.S. embassy. Demonstrations are also banned near the D-Day events on Sunday.