Last week’s visit by Emmanuel Macron, President of France, brought to mind two previous visits by French Chief Executives, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1976) and the most famous of all, Charles DeGaulle (1960) a World War II warrior after whom a west bank thoroughfare would be named.
There was one other person from French history who spent time and often shared memories of New Orleans, though when we was a student in his twenties. That is Jacques Chirac, who would be chief executive of France from 1995 to 2007.
When Chirac was a graduate exchange student from the Harvard, he spent time in this city doing a study on the Port of New Orleans. (The study would be entitled “La Nouvelle-Orléans et Son Port en 1954.”) He would also be personal witness to New Orleans healthcare. In 1954, he became seriously ill with pneumonia, so a French- speaking doctor was called on. That was New Orleanian Homer Dupuy, a dedicated Francophile, who nursed young Chirac back to good health. For the rest of his life, Dupuy would talk about maintaining a correspondence with Chirac as he ascended to Mayor of Paris and then to President.
New Orleans native Tom Sanction once served as Paris Bureau Chief for Time magazine. In that capacity, he met Chirac during his presidency several times. One year, while on a panel at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, Sanction recalled that each time he met Chirac, the president was delighted to hear that he was from New Orleans. Chirac told about his experience as an exchange student. His selection for the honor was even reported in the education news of the local daily. According to Sanction, Chirac liked to say that The Times-Picayune was the first newspaper in which his name was ever published.
Some of his memories were confused. Sanction remembered that Chirac would talk about going to New Orleans’ Jazz clubs and hearing Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway perform, neither of whom lived or worked here. He also said that he befriended Ellington and the two had dinner at Galatoire’s. That, however, was an unlikely occurrence in the segregated 1950s.
Had Chirac ever returned to New Orleans he could have felt the French influence by seeing the Joan of Arc statue and taking a ride down DeGaulle Drive, maybe even actually having dinner at Galatoire’s.
Chirac’s local impact continues. At a reception last week, President Macron shook hands with Lafayette based Warren Perrin, a passionate activist for French causes who was a founder of CODIFL, the organization working to save the French language in Louisiana. (Perrin, a lawyer, once tried to sue the British government for the deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. He did not succeed but did get a cautiously worded acknowledgement from the British.)
“I got to shake Macron’s hand and chat a minute because he spotted my Legion of honor pin,” Perrin reported. Several years ago, it had been given to him by President Chirac.
Chirac’s former doctor would be an achiever, too. Though France had abandoned the monarchy in 1870, Dupuy would one day wear a crown. He was Rex in 1963.
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