French officials lobbying for the D-Day beaches in Normandy to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site won some international backing on Thursday when Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear showed his support alongside Laurent Beauvais, president of the council for the Lower Normandy region. But this time, even assistance from foreign allies won’t help their cause, says the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). A lengthy evaluation process, an already long queue of requests from France and a tendency to keep battlefields off the list will mean a long wait for the D-Day beaches – not to mention that the French government has yet to submit the required application to UNESCO.
Local officials have been campaigning for the historical landmark, which serves as an important source of tourism income for the region and which would benefit even further from gaining UNESCO status, to be recognised by the organisation since 2006. The five beaches, named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, saw the arrival of 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces on June 6, 1944. Some 10,000 of those forces were killed on site, but the operation was heralded as a critical turning point in the war against Germany.
In February the campaigners headed for France’s ministry of culture with a weighty argument for why the beaches deserved the same status as other historic war sites. “Alongside Hiroshima and Auschwitz which have already been listed, the regional council of Lower Normandy wants to see the Normandy landing beaches classed as World Heritage sites,” an official statement read.
In late May the campaigners, led by regional council vice president Alain Tourret and Caen memorial director Stéphane Grimaldi, stepped up the pressure by taking their cause to a G8 convention in Deauville with a letter addressed to the eight world leaders in attendance. “This is not just about history and tourism,” Tourret told local daily Ouest France. “This is a message of lasting peace.”
A few weeks later, President François Hollande gave the campaign a welcome boost when he told reporters that he “fully supported” the initiative. But the dossier handed to the ministry of culture – a copy of which was given to Governor Beshear during his visit on Thursday – has failed to transform into an official nomination by the French government, leaving very little time to make a 2014 deadline, the landings’ 70-year anniversary.
War sites an exception
In an interview with FRANCE 24, UNESCO programme specialist Alessandro Balsamo described a lengthy and complex process that could see the idea “stuck in the pipeline for decades”.
“Even getting such a project onto the tentative list can take years of preparation,” he explained. “Besides, France already has  sites waiting to be evaluated, and we are only able to process two requests per year.” Some of the French sites have been on the list since 1996.
After the long wait, it is up to UNESCO to decide whether the site meets one of its 10 strict criteria. The D-Day beaches, Balsamo explains, would fall under item six on the list, which covers sites “associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs […] of outstanding universal significance”, and is one of the weaker of the criteria. In addition, a key obstacle for Normandy is its battlefield status, says Balsamo. “The wish here at UNESCO, and also with the public, is to keep [war sites] as exceptions. It’s impossible to say which war is more important than another – if we started to count them all we’d have an endless list.”
Balsamo says that Hollande’s support – “if serious” – could certainly help, but he maintains that 2014 remains an impossible deadline that Normandy is “nowhere near" to meeting. "We’d be looking at four or five years minimum,” he says. “If the locals in Normandy are really concerned about protecting the site, then World Heritage is not the only option. There are other, less complicated ways of going about it.” France has a culture of protecting its heritage and also falls under strict European legal frameworks set up to protect important sites, including historical war sites.
But the UNESCO label is the one that would sell best in a region where a major slice of local revenue comes directly from historical tourism. It’s also a prickly issue of pride for locals, who have been tethered to the bloody tale of the Normandy landings, during which thousands of civilians were also killed, for the best part of a century.