COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE -- Under an overcast sky not unlike the morning 63 years ago that Allied forces stormed the Norman beaches below, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed yesterday to their sacrifice to argue that the United States and France have long worked together to defeat tyranny and now must do so again.
Speaking at the U.S. memorial on the northwest French coast overlooking the graves of 9,387 Americans killed in the Battle of Normandy, Gates marked the anniversary of D-Day by recalling the shared history of France and the United States during World War II and the Cold War. Despite occasional discord, he said, Washington and Paris "remained unified in purpose" against Nazi Germany and later Soviet communism.
Gates compared the current struggle with Islamic extremism to those previous conflicts, arguing that it, too, was an ideological battle that could take years to resolve against an enemy determined to destroy democratic values.
"Events like this also remind us of all we have endured together; remind us of our long history in times of war and in times of peace; remind us of the shared values that transcend whatever differences we may have had in the past or may have in the present," Gates said.
He addressed those comments directly to Herve Morin, the new French defense minister, who sat just a few feet away overlooking giant French and American flags straining in a brisk wind.
Between 12,000 and 20,000 French civilians were killed during the fighting in Normandy, many in the Allied bombing.
Gates' trip to France is the first by a senior U.S. official since the inauguration last month of President Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-charging conservative who has expressed admiration for American dynamism and economic success.
Sarkozy's comparatively pro-American rhetoric is a significant break from that of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and Gates' speech clearly attempted to build on the nascent improvement in the bilateral atmosphere by harking back to a time when American blood was shed to liberate France from Nazi occupation.
"Many people believe that the foundations of the alliance forged in places like this have collapsed or outlived their usefulness," he said. "Let the people of our nations never forget that we are bound by history and values just as we are bound by blood. The blood of Americans. The blood of Frenchmen."
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.