Vive La France

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

Several years ago I was at a breakfast where the then-French Ambassador to the United States was the center of attention. Over a selection of breads that certainly reflected frugality in the French entertainment budget, the ambassador received questions. Most were business-like queries about trade and commerce, but as the morning wore on and the ambassador wore out, I asked the question that had been bothering me most. “Mr. Ambassador, we Americans always hear that the French don’t like us. Now, we’re nice people. Why don’t they like us?” He nodded. Being he was an Ambassdor I expected a denial followed by a list of all the ways that France loves America. Instead he gave an answer that was amazingly frank. “It is not the French who don’t like Americans,” he said, “it is the Parisians. But then the Parisians don’t like anyone. My advice is to visit Paris in August when the Parisians are on vacation.”

We all laughed. I paused to butter my croissant with what butter was left. Others in the crowd began to recite encounters where they found, if not love, at least acceptance in the old country.

Had that breakfast been today I could have contributed more to the latter conversation, because last year I visited a place where the French do love us – it’s called Normandy. They love us for the invasion that liberated their country in 1944 and they love us for the invasion of American tourists, many descendants of the original invaders, who still walk the beaches 70 years later. They love us every time they go to the bank, even if we are little tiring in our uniform of Reeboks, football jerseys and baseball caps. If that is the look of freedom, so be it.

Had the cheese not run out over breakfast there might have been time to ponder how much Louisiana in turn owes to France, foremost for Louis XIV having sent Canadians to found a city.

That not only defined us as a place on the map, but also gave us a carefree Latin character long before the more serious English or Dutch got here. And secondly, for selling us. For the price of New Orleans, the fledging union of states got extra land stretching to Montana. Had the French not created a city on the big bend in the Mississippi River, the British might have done so eventually, only instead of frolicking on Mardi Gras we might be pouring syrup on Pancake Day.

While it still might be wise to avoid Parisians out of season, our cities share stories to tell, one appropriate to this the month of Bastille Day. It was in that very building, the home of the French Consul General, that a famous toast was exchanged during the 1960s. The reigning French Ambassador was there that night too, presiding over what we assume was a more bountiful dinner. As the story goes, Vic Schiro, the then-mayor of New Orleans, rose to lift his glass. “I offer a toast,” he said, “to the King of France.” There was an embarrassed silence as the representative of a republic whose last monarch ended his reign at a guillotine rose to reply. “And I offer a toast to the Queen of America.” Posterity does not recall Schiro’s reaction, but there was reportedly good-natured laughing. A glass of champagne can always save a moment.
 

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