Commemoration of the Normandy landings
I wanted to be in Caen today, at this Memorial Centre, on this anniversary of 6 June 1944.
This is my first visit as President of the Republic, at what is a symbolic moment for the nation: the first step which led to the liberation of our territory. That was 68 years ago.
It was a spring day.
Like today, it was a morning of calm after the storm and rain.
155,000 men embarked from the other side of the Channel, from England. They were defending freedom to the point of being prepared to make the supreme, most precious sacrifice: that of their young lives.
I am thinking of each of those men today. Each one who, in the barges approaching the coast, took with him in his heart what he cherished, his hopes and his fears. All those men who, above all, laid down their short lives in battle.
I am also thinking of the French people, who had been expecting them for such a long time. For four years they suffered the burden of humiliation and pain under the Occupation.
Dawn on 6 June 1944 wasn’t like others. It heralded the end of a night which had lasted 1,500 days. The night of occupation.
That morning, 722 warships and 4,266 transport vessels advanced towards the beaches. They had been preceded by parachutists who, courageously, had begun preparing the work of organizing the landings. They were the army of peace. That army was going to triumph through its skill, its bravery, its tenacity and also its cunning, which consisted in making the Germans believe that the landings were planned for somewhere other than Normandy.
So on the evening of 6 June 1944, our country, France, ceased to be wholly occupied. The troops of freedom set foot on our territory’s soil. They mapped out the way. They created hope. Charles de Gaulle was able to declare: “The sun of our greatness is shining forth once again”.
I want, here, to express again today, 68 years later, France’s gratitude to those who made that liberation possible.
Those men came from 12 countries.
From the United States, which sacrificed such a large number of its children – soldiers, parachutists, sailors, airmen, who lost their lives in the woodland and copses of our Normandy. France owes them a great deal. She knows this. She will not forget. And I mean never.
But there weren’t just Americans. There were also Canadians, Belgians, Dutch, Czechs, Poles, Danes, Norwegians, Australians, Luxembourgers, New Zealanders and Greeks, who had come to give up their lives for our own freedom.
I pay tribute to Britain, who was alone against barbarism for so long and who “never surrendered”. For four years, London was the capital of free Europe. And one man, Winston Churchill, held firm so that we too could be ready to fight along with General de Gaulle and the Resistance.
I also pay tribute to the Russians, who – on the other side of the European continent, to the east – were fighting with all their might to thwart Hitlerism. Let us pay our respects to the memory of the 21 million Russians – and I mean 21 million! – who died in a ruthless war against Nazi Germany.
And I pay tribute to the France who saved France – I’m talking about the Free French Forces, the ones who held their heads up high, raised the flag and liberated our own soil.
At this moment, my thoughts go to the Kieffer commandos, who landed in Normandy on 6 June. My thoughts also go to the Resistance. Those men and women who couldn’t imagine any solution, any way out, any path other than fighting for their country’s honour. (…)
So it was the Normandy landings that enabled victory and made peace possible.
In remembering all those soldiers and all those civilians who died, I want to address the youngest among you; many of them have come here, and I thank them today. I would like – and this is the message of today, 6 June 2012 – I would like this remembrance, which we celebrate, to be not only loyalty to the veterans, to past generations, but an act of clear-sightedness in relation to the danger threatening us, of stringency in relation to public morality and human dignity, and of awareness that we haven’t finished the noble battle, the great battle for humanity.
I would also like today, 6 June, to be a moment of transmission.
If we were ever, one day, to forget the heroes of the landings, of the Battle of Normandy, then we would be forgetting why we are alive. (…)
Remembrance depends on our collective ability to rise above ourselves and thus turn memory into history.
Remembrance must be able to outlive the witnesses of events themselves and continue to find words when the survivors’ voices have fallen silent. This is the challenge for the coming generation: preservation, continuity and transmission.
Remembrance is also places. And on behalf of the state, I fully support the initiative taken by the Basse-Normandie region to have the D-Day landing sites included on the list of World Heritage sites.
Remembrance is dates – so many steps in the march of time – and rituals that must be respected. That is why I am very committed to anniversaries – of events, tragedies, but also of glorious deeds: the anniversary of the allied landings. I want 6 June each year in our country to be an important moment of national cohesion and international solidarity. And I would like us to begin preparing now – as the Memorial Centre has started doing – for the ceremonies of 6 June 2014. It will be the 70th anniversary; it will be an opportunity for us to come together in Normandy alongside the representatives of all the peoples who fought here. So I’ll be inviting all the heads of state and government of the nations whose children died here to take part in the ceremonies of 6 June 2014.
Remembrance is teaching. And once again, I appreciate the responsibility of teachers, who must explain, make people understand, support young minds and tell them that barbarism was possible in the 20th century and may return in the 21st. We have traces of it; we have signs of it. Those teachers must clarify the meaning of history, set moral bearings for generations that may at times lose them, and enable people to recognize the failings of all civilizations, which can destroy themselves when they are no longer faithful to values and principles. (…)
Finally, my last message: remembrance is also knowing where Europe comes from and where it must go.
This region, Normandy, is covered with the graves of all Europe’s children. I’m thinking of the British cemeteries in Banneville and Bayeux, not far from Colleville-sur-Mer, where the American brothers-in-arms lie. But I’m also thinking of the German cemetery of La Cambe. All those young Europeans were the victims of barbarity, that of Nazism. All the European children of those who did not die must be capable, 68 years on, of creating a Europe of peace, solidarity and progress.
Only the emergence of a common European conscience will protect us against the return of hatred in the form of nationalism, extremism and populism. So we must be the equals of those who have gone before us in the European battle.
I have only one wish to express here, and I address it once again, as Head of State, to young people, who must be the great priority of the five-year term that is just beginning. You, the young people of France, who have never known anything other than democracy and peace: be the equals of those who had the determination to save peace and preserve democracy.
For remembrance is peace. Peace, yes, but not at the cost of renunciation, not at the cost of compromise, not at the cost of abdication – no. Peace as the culmination of a battle, of a harsh and bitter struggle. But also of a liberation. To want peace is to fight injustice, ignominy, racism, and anti-Semitism, which is still being expressed here.
This is how we shall give remembrance a future.
Remembrance is not a feeling, an attitude, a state of mind: it is a job, it is a policy, and I am now its guarantor.
You see, dear friends, I have come to speak to you as much about yesterday as about today and perhaps even about tomorrow.
What happened here on 6 June 1944 was a clarion call. And we hear it still, that clarion call. The clarion call of men and women who wanted to fight for pride, their nation’s pride no doubt, but also, most certainly, for the human conscience; who wanted to fight for their freedom but equally for that of humanity; who wanted to fight for peace: today’s peace but also tomorrow’s.
In expressing our gratitude to those combatants of 6 June 1944, we have come to remember a glorious past, but above all we are here to pledge solemnly to be worthy of them. (…)./.