French Give Tribute to Revered Leader A Triple Anniversary Celebrates the Life of Charles De Gaulle - a Letter from Rouen, France

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IN the ornate city hall of the capital of Normandy, a group of mostly gray-haired men and women prepares for the city's commemoration of Charles de Gaulle with the reverence of officers anticipating their commander in chief.

There are squabbles about who should read a proclamation, about the appropriateness of the material chosen for a plaque. But underlying it all is a sense of piety.

"General de Gaulle was a man who held his love for France and its freedom above everything else," says Bernard Lefevre, president of an organization that groups members of the resistance in what were French African colonies at the time of World War II. "Perhaps I exaggerate, but for many of us he embodied a certain saintedness."

A year ago, France staged a grandiose celebration of the French Revolution's bicentennial, a celebration that was directed as much at the world outside France as that within. This year the country marks a triple anniversary - the centenary of Charles de Gaulle's birth, the 20th anniversary of his death, and, perhaps most important, the golden anniversary of his call to the French to resist the Nazi occupation - and the commemoration is mostly for the French themselves.

Among the men and women gathered at Rouen's city hall, what is cited most often is de Gaulle's fist-clenched assurance that France - and right - would prevail in the face of adversity, and that it is never time to give up hope in the future. "Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is this defeat definitive?," asked the little-known general with the mythic name, over BBC radio on June 18, 1940. "Non!" was his emphatic reply.

For these former members of the resistance, de Gaulle's "no" to submission and lost freedom is timeless.

"The general's call personified resistance to persecution in the name of freedom," says Raoul LePetre. "I heeded that call in '40, and tomorrow I would do it again."

Mindful that commemoration of de Gaulle's call to resist "the tanks, planes, and tactics of the Germans" might be viewed by younger French as rooted in the past, Normandy's members of the resistance say de Gaulle's vision for a strong and united Europe is also part of what they celebrate. …