France and England have fought each other in the 100 Years' War, the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars and scads of less memorably named conflicts. And more recently, the French and English have treated the blood-and-tears clashes between their national rugby and soccer teams as fetishes for those battles of yore. The geysers of bile pouring forth from the London tabloids this week suggests a new chapter in Anglo-French enmity may be upon us. Call it the "Great D-Day Hissy Fit."
The casus belli in the latest cross-Channel spat is the slight dealt by the French government to Queen Elizabeth II in failing to invite her to the June 6 ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion at Normandy. While the Queen has attended and also skipped various previous D-Day commemorations, this year's event seems to have been given heightened allure by the planned attendance of U.S. President Barack Obama, who remains the King of Pop on the diplomatic circuit. British tabloids have gone ballistic over what they see as French President Nicolas Sarkozy trying to hog the Obama-radiated limelight. (See portraits of Queen Elizabeth.)
"A diminutive egomaniac, the stain of Nazi collaboration and why the French can't forgive us for saving them in the War", was Thursday's headline in London's Daily Mail, above an article filled with denunciation of the French and their leaders as cheese-eating surrender monkeys. For good measure, the paper ran a second story titled, "What did YOUR dad do in the war, Sarkozy?" The paper's answer to its own question was to claim Sarkozy's Hungarian-born father celebrated D-Day by fleeing collaborationist Budapest for Nazi-controlled Germany to escape advancing Soviet troops. The same story also alleges that the family of Sarkozy's current wife, industrial scion Carla Bruni Sarkozy, had been pretty chummy with Mussolini. (Read TIME's 2004 cover story "The Greatest Day.")
The D-Day contretemps began on Wednesday, after the British tabloids discovered that their sovereign had been snubbed by the French and was reportedly not amused. And the vitriol went up a notch on Thursday after French officials didn't bother denying they hadn't invited the Queen.
"The June 6 celebration is foremost a Franco-American celebration," said French government spokesman Luc Chatel, noting the event takes place on U.S. territory in Normandy that houses the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer a detail that appears to ignore the tens of thousands of British and Canadian troops that hit the beaches along with U.S. forces. Chatel provided further ammo for tabloid accusations that Sarkozy was looking to steal the show by stressing that the bilateral nature of the event was of particular significance this year, since it will be the first Obama attends as President. (See pictures of Sarkozy in London.)
The unapologetic candor from Paris had even the broadsheet Daily Telegraph on Thursday running the "gotcha" headline "France admits not inviting the Queen to 65th D-Day anniversary." France also appeared to try to shift responsibility onto the scandal-plagued British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. An invitation, French spokesmen noted, had been sent to the U.K. and was accepted by the Prime Minister. "The British wanted to be associated with this ceremony, and they are naturally welcome," Chatel said, oozing innocence and virtue. "(But) it is not up to France to designate British representation."
Amid the barrage from the London papers, perplexed French reporters covered the British pique with reports quoting Buckingham Palace officials denying that the Queen had been hacked off by the matter royally or otherwise. Still, there was some sense of unease in France over the affair. French people young and old still express enduring gratitude for the sacrifices of the Allied forces that drove the Germans out of France an effort that cost the Allies some 37,000 lives in Normandy. That feeling prompted many in France to wince at the British tabloid accusations of wartime fecklessness and current ingratitude. Still, those French who are even aware of the British ranting are weathering it with Gallic shrugs. After all, how much is really new about a spat between the British crown and a diminutive French leader?