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French haven't forgotten U.S. sacrifices, but most remain opposed to new war

STE. MERE EGLISE, France—Roger Coueffin was 5 years old and terrified, that June night in 1944. He remembers shattered glass and choking dust. Bombs flattened his neighbor's house in the village of Carentan, and American parachutists filled the skies like angels with chocolates.

Nearly 59 years later, he receives every U.S. vet who makes the pilgrimage to Ste. Mere Eglise, the first French town liberated by Americans on D-Day. They have a coffee or a Stella Artois beer in Stop Bar, his place at the center of town, and trade stories under pictures of the soldiers and American flags.

One might think that here, where history still hangs in the air, people would understand why the Bush administration seems intent on war with Iraq.

Not Coueffin. "There is not enough to justify a war," said the beefy, bespectacled 64-year-old.

Not his son, Christian. "No one I know is for it," said the 24-year-old.

And not their friend, Jean Francois Landry, the mayor of nearby Carentan.

Landry was 8 when the men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions landed, and he remembers a few images: a GI in a jeep, a soldier leaning down to hand him candy bars and a bag of sugar.

"We have not forgotten the sacrifices of the American soldiers," he said, "and I don't accept that the American papers say we have. We like Americans. We like democracy. But we think with Iraq, we must not share your position. I am not sure this is the right means now."

As much as 80 percent of the French support President Jacques Chirac's call for continued U.N. weapons inspections of Iraq and oppose a U.S.-led drive to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It's work finding the 20 percent who support the position of Bush and his main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Each day Paris' Le Monde newspaper fills a page called the Iraqi Debate, but according to Pascal Bruckner, a Parisian author, there is only one side: those against war.

Many assume that in Normandy, where the highway signs read like headlines from newsreels—Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, St. Lo—America has more support. "Sacrifice," the New York Post reminded in a headline over a photograph of the American Cemetery.

Little angers the Normans more than the accusation that they have forgotten. "I reject that," Landry said in English, pouring champagne and inviting his office staff to toast a visiting American.

Four hours into a visit to Ste. Mere Eglise, and the surrounding fields and villages, the rarest of birds was sighted: a pro-American hawk. Jean-Bernard Valognes was walking by the 15th-century church where John Steele's parachute caught on June 5, 1944, an event captured in the book and film "The Longest Day."

"We know Saddam," said the 45-year-old, headed for his Army-Navy supply store. "He is an animal. We should have finished the job the first time."

Valognes parted from his country's position in 1986 when he was living in Charlotte, N.C., and read that France wouldn't let U.S. jets fly overhead to bomb Libya. "We should have had a few planes flying behind yours," said Valognes, a stout, mustachioed man.

His is the minority view these days, he conceded, and it is tempered with empathy for those whose homes become battlefields.

"Regular people cannot find a good reason to make a new war for one man," he said. "I understand. New technology saves soldiers but can kill civilians." He paused. "If you do this war, please—not too much."

Roel Klinkhamer listened and nodded. Like many here, he doesn't offer his opinion easily. He makes his living off American veterans. He offers tours of the Normandy beaches and battlefields, and he and his wife run a bed and breakfast inn in Planquery in a 17th-century chateau.

Business has plummeted, he said. This time of year, he usually receives 15 e-mails a day for reservations. He's down to two. A young woman just wrote, saying she was afraid to travel alone by train from Paris to Bayeux for fear of anti-American protests, as if the hordes were lining the rails brandishing baguettes.

Klinghamer can boil down his views on the conflict to three sentences, he said finally. "Bush is trying to finish his father's job. It's all about oil. And when Bush came to visit the American Cemetery last year, he didn't stay long enough to see what happens when you start a war."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.