Var Uproar Over Last Minutes Changes to Venue for WWII Commemorations

A political row is blazing in Provence where last minute changes to plans to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Allied landings in southern France have angered locals who unfailingly remember the events each year.

Throwing a damper on the particularly important WWII remembrance ceremonies this year is, “a cynical need for a photo-op by France’s popularity-challenged Socialist president François Hollande”, according to Anita Rieu-Sicart – editor of the English-language Var Village Voice magazine published in the region.

While that may seem like hyperbole the trials and tribulations that have hit locally-organised memorial ceremonies are stark and according to the local media stirring much bitterness.

“Planning for the ceremonies at the Draguignan Rhône American Cemetery to commemorate this (Allied landings) event on August 15, have been ongoing for many, many months,” she writes. Indeed war historians tend to refer to the landings as the Forgotten Campaign — an irony not lost on the organisers of this year’s troubled commemorations. “Now all of a sudden the President and foreign dignitaries initially scheduled to attend have cancelled, apparently preferring the bigger affair being staged in Toulon,” she adds.

A series of reports by the Provence-based Varmatin newspaper reveal growing criticism and dismay over of an imbroglio which seems to have derailed the long-established programme to honour fallen soldiers of the Allied Forces in WWII, and this at a time when there is but a dwindling band of survivors left.

There is indignation in particular because 2014 marks the start of a four-year programme of Great War 14-18 remembrance hosted by France in conjunction with its WWII allies and which included major ceremonies on June 6 this year marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the allied landings on Normandy beaches.

As French News Online reported earlier similar landings in the Mediterranean a few weeks after D-Day tend to be forgotten by world leaders but not by the locals for whom the American Cemetery in Draguignan is the focal point of remembrance and which this year will be commemorated with a special August 15th ceremony sur place.

On July 29 Varmatin, a widely-read regional paper reporting on the uproar, quoted an angered Olivier Audibert-Troin, UMP national assembly deputy for Var and a member of the parliamentary committee for national defence and the armed forces. Varmatin said: “Olivier Audibert-Troin made his consternation (over the changed plans) known in a letter to French President François Hollande. ‘The American Cemetery in Draguignan’, he wrote, ‘created by Angelin German, the medical doctor who treated the French Resistance fighters and where the graves of 860 GI’s lie, is a symbol of the sacrifice made by the Allies.’ He added: ‘maquis activity in the Upper-Var was important and probably decisive for the success of Operation Dragoon (originally named Anvil) in which 160,000 men of 22 nationalities were engaged’ ”.

Anita Rieu-Sicart writing for the Var Village Voice takes up the story: “Local officials, and others, are very upset, and rightly so. And who is upsetting them, none other than their President, François Hollande.

“For we are about to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Operation Dragoon the 15 August 1944 allied landings in the South of France which involved something like 9,000 parachutists, mainly British, landing in Le Muy from gliders, and a vast, mainly American, sea-borne landing force on the beaches of the Var, stretching from Cavalaire to St. Raphael.
“As one can imagine planning for the commemoration ceremonies have been ongoing for months, involving as much effort as those related to the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6 which were attended by British Royalty — the Queen and Prince Philip – and hundreds of veterans of that campaign. President Hollande wined, and dined the dignitaries at this widely televised event in a clear effort to improve his highly unpopular voter ratings,” she writes.

(The president whom a majority of the electorate now despise, has regularly plumbed the depths over the past year with the worst popularity ratings of any president in the Vth Republic.)

“And now in the Var,” she continues, “things have gone decidedly pear-shaped, due to apparent intransigence by the Elysée Palace. At the heart of all this upset is Draguignan in the Var, home to the beautiful Rhône American Cemetery, where 860 of the American soldiers who landed and died in this campaign are buried. It is where some of the major commemorations are held, events that also spread out across all the villages around this area that were liberated from 15 August onwards.

“And it was here that President François Hollande was supposed to be honouring the war dead of this campaign and its veterans, joining local dignitaries, who over the past 70 years, have unfailingly honoured the memory of all the soldiers lost in this campaign. Led by Bruce Malone, the US Army Superintendent in charge of the cemetery, planning for this year’s event and the originally-arranged Presidential visit, was well advanced. The ceremonies were also due to be attended by some 21 other international VIPs – mainly heads of State or their deputies from Franco-African states.

“But then out of the blue the Elysée dropped a bombshell, the President was not going to be at Draguignan and no reasons were given. Never mind that advance media packs had been distributed detailing the ceremonies and the guests and dignitaries attending. No, he would now be going only to Mont Faron, which overlooks Toulon, apparently following in the footsteps of General Charles de Gaulle, who in 1965 inaugurated the memorial there to French and Algerian forces who jointly liberated Toulon. Thereafter he will preside over a Naval Review from the deck of the French aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle.

“News of the changes was broken by Var Matin, the local newspaper and prompted a dismayed Olivier Audibert-Troin — long a supporter of local commemorations — to make a fuss. He wrote to President Hollande expressing his “ ‘consternation’ and ‘indignation’, at the slight. Then he followed up with a phone call to the Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian, to stress his concerns. For his efforts he was told that another ceremony originally organised at the St. Raphael Memorial, had also been cancelled.

“Tempers began to ran high and the MP called the ministry again to warn of the repercussions of the decisions. His arguments appear to have borne some fruit as the Ministry has announced the ceremony at St. Raphael monument will now proceed, attended by Kader Arif, Secretary of State for War Veterans. But the minister insisted, the ceremony originally organised for the American-run Draguignan Cemetery will not proceed at least not in the presence of the Head of State and his guests.

“What is particularly sad from the viewpoint of the locals is that the villages that were liberated from 15 August 1944, take this part of their history very seriously. They remember, they commemorate and they have maintained links with American, British and other veterans who return to pay their respects year after year.

“The village of Le Muy, the first village to be liberated, commemorates the events with great enthusiasm. It was all around here, that the overwhelmingly number of British parachutists were dropped, with instructions to hold the bridge over the Argens river, and ensure sea-borne forces could make their way inland.

“Each year Le Muy hosts a troupe of battle re-enactors, who over time have collected souvenirs and memorabilia of the landings, which were once housed in a small local museum that unfortunately got washed away in the disastrous floods of 2010. Many were subsequently rescued, cleaned and repaired and are now back on display. The villagers celebrate the 15 August, and their liberation with as much pomp and circumstance as they can muster and ensure the flame of memory is passed on from generation to generation.”

Anita Rieu-Sicart suggests that the on-again, off-again ceremonies in the Var have been let down by a president desperate to bolster his flagging support with a photo opportunity at the port of Toulon.

“Toulon’s blue collar workforce, she says, is dependent on the Naval Dockyards while the town itself, and Mont Faron, now about to be honoured by the President, is a very blue collar working class place, with a mainly Algerian population, who adore their local Rugby Club, owned by millionaire Mourad Boudjellal, a man of Algerian origin. One wonders how many Toulonais will turn out to welcome the President on 15 August, given the latest French unemployment statistics show no improvement in his biggest policy failure — more than 3.4 million people out of work in France”.

No immediate Elysée response was forthcoming over the reasons for the changed venue.

Story: Anita Rieu-Sicart

(This article was written for the VAR VILLAGE VOICE which circulates to expats throughout the Var and region).
Reprinted here by kind permission of Anita Rieu-Sicart, Editor, VAR VILLAGE VOICE, 1142 Route des Miquelets, 83510 Lorgues.
(Additional reporting by Ken Pottinger)

France paid tribute Friday August 15 to Allied troops — including veterans from the U.S. and French colonies in Africa — who landed 70 years ago on Mediterranean shores to liberate the area from Nazi occupation, the Associated Press reported.

President François Hollande accompanied by the heads of 20 African states, led ceremonies at Mount Faron above Toulon and aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

According to Le Point commemorations of the events of August 15, 1944, focused on the role of  l’Armée d’Afrique, the “Army of Africa” ​​in the landings. In 1944, 10 weeks after D-Day in Normandy, some 850 vessels landed troops on the beaches of the Var for a total of 450,000 men, including 250,000 French soldiers of “Army B”, under the command of General de Lattre de Tassigny.  Half of the force comprised  of Europeans from French North Africa, mainly pieds-noirs while the remainder were ‘native’ soldiers from the then colonies (Senegalese, Algerian and Moroccan soldiers and others from the French Pacific and Caribbean territories). “By their sacrifice, these men have developed between our countries and Africa a blood tie that nothing can undo,” Francois Hollande said in paying tribute.

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