'My grandfather was blown up in front of my eyes'

The view from France
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On the morning of 6 June 1944, Michel Pain was a child of eight, living 200m from the sea at Courseulles-sur-Mer. His small home town was about to acquire a new name, Juno Beach.

"All through the night there was bombing and shelling from the warships at sea," he says. "I remember my grandfather saying to me: 'This is not normal. This is something big.' A few hours later my grandfather was killed in front of my eyes, his chest torn open by a bomb. A British bomb, I suppose."

Emil Lesaunier, a fisherman, and his grandson were very close. "It was he who had raised me because my own father was a captive, in Germany from 1940. My grandfather went right through the First World War in the trenches, even through the whole of Verdun, without a scratch. Within a few minutes of the start of the invasion, my grandfather was dead."

M. Pain pauses. "I have rarely spoken about these things in 60 years. Somehow we always wanted, here in France, to look forward, not back. But now, somehow, it seems to be the right moment to think about it again, and I find that I can remember every second of that day, things that I have not thought about for years."

As the memories return he speaks them out. "We fled from our house into a field when the bombardment began. We didn't know that there was an anti-aircraft gun in the field. I remember the planes, coming in to attack, low over the sea, and a string of bombs falling. There was a goat in a shed. The shed, the goat, everything flew through the air. Bodies flew through the air. My grandfather was lying on his back with his chest gashed open. My mother and grandmother were injured, screaming. Somehow, myself, and my two younger sisters were unhurt.

"A few minutes later, because we were so close to the beach, the first Allied soldiers reached us and gave us first aid. They were talking French. I remember that people were saying: 'But they are French soldiers. They are French'. But they were not French, they were French Canadians, talking in a thick Québécois accent."

M. Pain's story is extraordinary - few civilians were so close to the beaches on 6 June - but also typical. There has been a flood of remembrance throughout Normandy, encouraged by a series of public meetings organised by the newspaper Ouest France and the Caen Mémorial peace museum. Many who attended the meetings (more than 10,000 in all) said, like M. Pain, that they were looking back for the first time in decades and that they had, through talking openly at last, a sense of being "liberated" for a second time.

Of course, in Normandy, where 14,000 civilians died in the nine weeks of the post D-Day battles, memories are especially raw. But many French people say that they detect a different attitude throughout France to next weekend's D-Day anniversary.

For many years, France - following the example set by Charles de Gaulle - preferred to concentrate on post-war reconstruction; on the new friendship with Germany; on the great European experiment. It was not that France was not grateful, or had forgotten the sacrifices of others, but there was almost a fear of dwelling on the war, possibly because of the unhealed divisions and failings in French society that the war had revealed.

Charles de Gaulle, as President of the Republic, even refused to attend the 20th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in 1964. His self-proclaimed Gaullist successor, Jacques Chirac, is so determined to make a big show next weekend that he has invited more heads of state and government than ever before, including Gerhard Schröder of Germany.

Vincent Hollard, 75, whose father Michel was among the greatest of France's wartime heroes and who was himself decorated, said: "For a generation, people in their 40s and 50s, the war was not quite ignored but not something that you could look at honestly and clearly. Most people in the older generation, my own, never stopped being grateful for D-Day. The younger ones have rediscovered it."

There have visibly been many more French people - including entire school parties - visiting the D-Day cemeteries in the last couple of weeks, than before. The criticism of "the French" en masse in the American media as a result of the war in Iraq may be partly responsible for this renewed surge of interest.

M. Pain, the boy on Juno Beach, now a retired postal worker, is equally critical of anti-Americanism. "Yes, President Bush has made some stupid mistakes, but still I resent it when I feel that my countrymen are denigrating not Bush, but America and the Americans. We should always remember what those American and British and Canadian boys did and how young they were."