Hugs, not macho handshakes: Trump shelves politics at D-Day anniversary

PARIS/COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France (Reuters) - President Donald Trump briefly set aside politics and his testy relationship with France’s Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, heaping praise on U.S. war veterans in a speech to mark the 75th D-Day anniversary and steering clear of issues that might rile Europe.

The two leaders embraced warmly as they arrived at a U.S. war cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where 2,500 American troops were killed by German gunners and artillery on June 6, 1944, the first day of the Allied effort to drive the Nazis out of France.

While Trump laced his discourse with religious undertones and references to his nation’s rural and industrial hinterlands - key bastions of his support - he refrained from hurling barbs at his rivals, some of whom were in the audience.

“The abundance of courage came from an abundance of faith,” Trump said. “They came here and saved freedom, and then they went home and showed us all what freedom is about.”

“More powerful than the strength of American arms was the strength of American hearts. These men ran through the fires of hell, moved by a force no weapon could destroy: the fierce patriotism of a free, proud and sovereign people,” he added.

Trump recognized several surviving veterans by name, including former Army medic Arnold Raymond “Ray” Lambert and Private Russell Pickett, 94, a teenager on D-Day when, tasked with operating a flame-thrower, he was wounded twice. As the frail Pickett struggled to his feet amid applause, Macron walked over and lent the veteran support.

The American news network CNN, which has regularly sparred with Trump, called it “one of the finest” speeches by the U.S. president.

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From the two leaders’ early bone-crunching handshake to the U.S. president appearing to flick dandruff off the younger man’s shoulder, Macron and Trump have had a difficult relationship, at odds over the American’s unilateralist approach to trade, climate change and on Iran.

At the centenary anniversary of World War One last year, their divergent views were on open display.

On Thursday, Macron peppered his remarks with praise for America’s leading role in liberating western Europe from Nazi Germany, though he pressed home his message on the value of allies and multilateralism.

“America, dear President Trump, is never greater than when fighting for others’ freedom,” he said, turning to Trump. “When free peoples unite, they can meet all the challenges.”

Trump’s ‘America First’ diplomacy and forthright criticism of multinational institutions born out of the ashes of World War Two have shaken allies. But as he remembered America’s fallen war heroes, he told European allies they were bound by unbreakable ties.

“To all our friends and partners, our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war and proven in the blessings of peace. Our bond is unbreakable,” he said.

Trump’s convivial words will soon be put to a stress-test: He and Macron later entered a bilateral meeting where hot-button issues such as trade, climate change and Iran’s activities in the Middle East will be discussed.

Reporting by Richard Lough in Paris and Steve Holland in Colleville-sur-Mer; Additional reporting by Michel Rose, Editing by William Maclean