PARIS--Today is June 6th — the 65th anniversary of the bloody but necessary allied landings, code-named D-Day, that turned the water red along the shores of Normandy and turned the tide of WWII.
I turned on the radio here in Paris for the 10 a.m. newscast on French national station, France-Inter.
Every sentient being in the nation knows about D-Day and Normandy and how the allies came to liberate France, so it would have been redundant to bore listeners with the basics. But I found myself surprised by the tack the station took.
The newscaster said that “since Jimmy Carter, all tenants of the White House have made a point of attending a D-Day commemoration. But the distinction this time is that the attendee has black skin. “That’s a supreme irony,” the announcer continued, “when you consider how America treated its black citizens in general and how the U.S. Army treated its black soldiers.”
They then broadcast historical recordings with residents of the villages and small towns that awoke on June 6, 1944 to the surprise of their lives and who witnessed many unforgettable things in the days and weeks to follow.
Experts reported that black soldiers did not have guns “because certain whites feared that if blacks were armed they might use those weapons to demand their rights.”
What really caught my attention was a vintage recording of a French man saying he’d seen a black American soldier hung, by the U.S. military, “for rape, but especially to set an example. If white soldiers commit rape, there were no consequences, because a white soldier was too valuable and was needed to fight. But a black soldier might get hung for something he didn’t even do.”
I may have been reading something into the man’s voice, but it sounded to me as if he didn’t think that poor Yank so insanely far from home had done anything wrong and certainly not anything that warranted being strung up in the public square. But knowing what happened to alleged rapists was probably a highly effective deterrent.
Today local wags referred to Omaha Beach as “Obama Beach.” Not a bad pun, actually.
And while the beaches are French, the military cemeteries are verdant, well-tended parcels of American soil, administered by Americans.
Later in the day, when Obama and French president Sarkozy and their fellow statesmen from Canada and the UK had arrived at Colleville-sur-Mer — whose Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the final resting place of over 9000 soldiers — TV commentators on the state-run station France 2 mentioned that there are four women buried there, three of whom were black. They worked at the local post office and were killed in a car accident. (Continuing to toss colors into the historical blender, the white woman worked for the Red Cross.)
Of the half million black soldiers enlisted or conscripted during the WWII years, less than 70,000 were in combat situations. “And yet,” the French commentators added, “the U.S. military was the first major American social entity to be desegregated.”
What, you may ask, is the film angle to all this? At 8:03 p.m. I walked out my front door, planning to attend an 8:10 show of the great Japanese animator Hayao Mayazaki’s new film “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”(due out this August 14th in the U.S.) at a movie theater a block away.
My street, the Boulevard Saint-Germain — a major thoroughfare, especially on a Saturday evening — was empty of car traffic. Expectant people lined the street on both sides and large physical specimens from the French police force forbid anybody to cross the road. Helicopters whirred overhead.
So I stood on the curb like everybody else and, at 8:07 was rewarded by the sight of Barack Obama’s black limousine whizzing past perhaps two yards away, distinguished from escort vehicles by the small American flag mounted beside the rear view mirror. There was spontaneous applause as the motorcade sped past en route to Notre Dame cathedral a few blocks away.
I was lucky enough to be in Chicago on Election night last November, but by waltzing out my front door in Paris seven months later I came closer to the current president of the United States than I probably otherwise will.
And because Paris is the best movie-going city in the world, I was able to cross the street, get a ticket and be in my seat by 8:10. Oh, yeah—on that short stroll to the cinema I passed two of the countless commemorative plaques that adorn buildings around the city honoring by name the heroic individuals who died on those spots fighting for the liberation of Paris in August 1944 .
Thanks to them and to those who streamed onto the Normandy beaches 65 years ago, Barack Obama could safely make the trip from Normandy to central Paris in the same busy, glorious day.