French say D-Day veterans must come first

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EIGHT WEEKS before Normandy will play host to tens of thousands of visitors for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, French officials emphasised yesterday that their main concern was to honour the veterans who took part in the invasion.

In the wake of last week's dispute over plans by the French government to requisition hotels where British and Canadian veterans had booked rooms, Philippe Mestre, the Minister for Veterans, said at a press conference: 'The veterans must be able to be where they want and be constantly honoured.'

France, he added, wanted to show its gratitude to both the survivors and those who perished during the landings. 'It was in this spirit that the decisions (to restore hotel bookings) were taken.'

On Monday the French Foreign Ministry said that requisitioning the hotels had only ever been an 'option', although the two Deauville hotels concerned showed letters from the government ordering them to make their rooms available. But the veterans' bookings would be honoured, the ministry said.

The decision ended a dispute which aroused public anger on both sides of the Channel.

An article this week in Le Monde, under the English headline 'Bed and Breakfast', said: 'Daring to treat the veterans as supernumeraries and intruders to make way for a few officials with no personal claim on our gratitude . . . would have been too poor.'

Mr Mestre said that Normandy expected 60,000 visitors, 50,000 of them veterans who took part in the landings.

With heads of state and government coming from seven countries and commemorations taking place at several different venues where troops landed, the logistics resembled organising 'a summit of heads of state in the middle of the Olympic Games', another French official said.

The main commemoration, involving all the visiting nations, will be held at Omaha Beach, where recordings of General Dwight Eisenhower's speech of 6 June 1944 and General Charles de Gaulle's broadcast the same day on the French service of the BBC will be played.

In addition, a letter home describing the beginning of the operation and written by a soldier who was to die later that day will be read out.

Dignitaries who were to have been housed at the Golf and Royal hotels in Deauville would now travel to the ceremonies by coach from Paris, officials said.