U.S. and French presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac briefly hailed the importance of ties between their countries at ceremonies held on Sunday in honor of Allied dead in the D-Day landings.
French President Jacques Chirac, right, and U.S. President George W. Bush at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-mer, France.
"Our great alliance of freedom is strong and it is still needed today," Bush said after laying a wreath in memory of US soldiers, 9,386 of whom lie in the vast military cemetery here overlooking Omaha Beach, scene of the bloodiest fighting on June 6, 1944.
Chirac told the large congregation of US war veterans present that "the message of France is a message of friendship and brotherhood: a message of appreciation and gratitude."
A focus on history, not recent disputes
Neither man made any reference to the recent strains in ties between their two governments over the US-led invasion of Iraq and France's opposition to it.
The ceremony began with a 21-gun salute, fired out to sea from the clifftops over Omaha Beach, where some 2,000 US troops died, about half the total Allied casualties on the first day of the landings to liberate France from Nazi occupation.
The presidents stood side by side as the mournful strains of the Last Post rang out. Their wives, Bernadette Chirac and Laura Bush, stood on the red carpet that flowed down from the pillared memorial on a rise in the heart of the graveyard.
The US and French flags hung at half-mast, but military spokesmen for both countries said it was to honor former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who died aged 93 in California on Saturday.
"He was a courageous man himself and a gallant leader in the cause of freedom," Bush said at the start of his address, directed almost exclusively to the veterans who thronged the site.
"You will be honored ever and always," he said. "America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes, and America would do it again for our friends. May God bless you."
Steering clear of Iraq
His only other reference to America's friends was when he declared that "in the trials and tribulations of war, we became inseparable allies."
Otherwise he spoke solely to those who had stormed the beaches as "brave and frightened men."
They had witnessed "scenes of daring and self-giving that went beyond anything the army or the nation could ask," he said.
"Only the ones who made that crossing can know what it was like."
One of the US veterans, 82-year-old Bill Hagen from California, welcomed Bush's discretion.
"I am glad he steered clear of making any comparisons with Iraq," he said.
Hagen, who landed in Normandy with the 79th infantry division on June 13, 1944, added: "We've got a lot of friends over here in France, and we keep trying to explain to them that this is a brief glitch in history, caused by the administration, not by ordinary Americans."
Chirac: We'll never forget those who died for us
Chirac, for his part, said that "France will never forget" the Allied soldiers who died to liberate its territory.
"I salute the memory and the sacrifice of all these fighters," he said. "They are now our sons also."
Chirac also expressed sympathy for the United States as a victim of the September 11, 2001, attacks which Bush has used to justify his war on terrorism.
"In America's time of trial, when barbarity wreaks death and destruction in America and elsewhere in the world, France stands foursquare alongside every man and woman in America, as in the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, a date engraved for ever in our memories and hearts," Chirac said.
"Their grief is our grief," he added.