US President Joe Biden is welcomed by French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal upon arrival at Paris Orly airport near Paris on June 5, 2024, as he travels to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, June 5, began a state visit to France marking 80 years since the World War II D-Day landings, with a new war shadowing Europe as Ukraine battles the Russian invasion.

Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, British King Charles III and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Biden will on Thursday remember the heroism of the Allied troops who gave their lives often far from home in the landings on June 6, 1944, to free Europe from Nazi occupation. For King Charles, it will be his first overseas visit since his cancer diagnosis.

While the sacrifice of Allied soldiers will be center stage, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian President Sergio Mattarella will also be present as a sign of international post-World War II reconciliation. Flying aboard Air Force One, Biden touched down at Paris Orly airport and was welcomed by Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. Biden was also expected to promote America as a defender of democracy and international alliances during his state visit that will last until Sunday, contrasting himself with election rival Donald Trump.

US President Joe Biden is welcomed by French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal upon arrival at Paris Orly airport near Paris on June 5, 2024, as he travels to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

But the war that has raged in Ukraine since Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion, will take center stage with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also attending and scheduled to meet with Biden, according to the White House. No official from Russia has been invited, after Paris reversed plans to host lower-level representatives in recognition of the Soviet Union’s immense contribution in World War II. The most honored guests will be the surviving veterans: Some 200 are expected, a number that is dwindling every year with most at least in their late 90s and some over 100.

‘Continue and deepen’

Macron kicked off the commemorations with a ceremony in Brittany to honor French paratroopers in the British Special Air Service (SAS) who died during the battle to retake France.

He honored Emile Bouetard, who died after he was parachuted into German-held Plumelec on the night of June 5 to 6, 1944, and is believed to be the first French casualty of the landing operation.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters traveling to Paris that Biden would tell Zelensky “how we can continue and deepen our support for Ukraine.”

‘We won the war’

Biden, Macron and Zelensky are coming together at a critical moment in the Ukraine conflict, with Kyiv warning that Russia risks gaining the upper hand without a significant increase in Western help. Macron has already sought to break taboos by refusing to rule out sending troops to Ukraine, a position that unsettled some EU allies.

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But there have been shifts in recent weeks, with the West showing readiness to allow Ukraine to use Western-provided weapons to strike targets in Russia and France pushing for the deployment of European military instructors in Ukraine. Macron, who once sought to build a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly warned about the existential nature of the Ukraine conflict for Europe, saying in a speech in April: “Our Europe is mortal, it can die.”

Welcoming veterans as they arrived by air in Normandy, the French leader’s wife Brigitte Macron expressed France’s “deepest respect and deepest love,” in a video posted on Macron’s X account. “I am glad we won the war,” one told her. “Oh yes we did” she replied in English, clasping his hand fervently.

‘The longest day’

The landings by Allied forces, backed by airborne operations that parachuted troops directly onto occupied soil, were the biggest naval operation ever in terms of the number of ships deployed and the troops involved. By the end of what became known as “the longest day,” 156,000 Allied troops with 20,000 vehicles had landed in Nazi-occupied northern France despite facing a hail of bullets, artillery and aircraft fire. The landings marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of Europe, although months of intense and bloody fighting still lay ahead before victory over the regime of Adolf Hitler.

Three days of ceremonies will see Macron pay tribute to French victims of Nazi occupation, including 70 members of the French Resistance executed by the Germans at Caen prison in Normandy on D-Day. The 80th anniversary Thursday will see leaders attend national ceremonies at the vast war cemeteries on the Normandy coast, with an international ceremony attended by all the main guests at Omaha.

On Friday, Biden will give a speech at the Pointe du Hoc – a clifftop promontory whose German bunkers were attacked by US troops in a daring assault during the landings – on defending freedom and democracy. Macron will also give a speech in Bayeux, the first French town to be liberated.

Biden will continue the trip in Paris on Saturday with the first state visit of his presidency to France, giving him and Macron a critical chance to push for peace in Ukraine and also the conflict in Gaza in talks at the Elysée Palace, before leaving France for the United States on Sunday.

Le Monde with AFP