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Lafayette, we aren't there yet

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It was a long time ago --- in emotional distance more than in years.

            On June 7, 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette stopped in downtown Rochester aboard an Erie Canal barge. An "estimated ten thousand cheering citizens" for the "Nation's Honored Guest" were "double the town's population," write historians Blake McKelvey and Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck. Honored guest indeed: Without French support and the likes of Lafayette, the American saga would have had quite a different prologue.

            Today the French are under fire for not aiding us in war. The terms have been reversed, of course: America is no longer the mythical scrappy kid; it's the global hegemon and self-employed hired gun.

            So it's painful to think how a modern Lafayette might be greeted here.

American officials certainly haven't been making too good an impression in France lately. And this touches things cultural as well as political.

            For example, George W. Bush offended many in France (and here) when he mocked an American reporter who dared address President Jacques Chirac in French. "That's very good," sneered Bush. "The guy [i.e. the reporter] memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental. I am impressed. Que bueno! Now I'm literate in two languages!"

            The episode was bad enough in isolation. But it's still a matter of some embarrassment that the US ambassador to France doesn't speak French too well. Okay, Howard H. Leach did embark on "intensive" language instruction when appointed.

            One wonders how much progress he's made. Recently, Le Monde printed Leach's letter urging the French to adopt the Bush administration's Iraq policy. A footnote explained the letter had been translated into French at the US embassy in Paris --- and apparently not by the ambassador's hand.

            On this side of the Atlantic, all things French are under cultural attack. Early this month, New Jersey restaurateur Anthony Tola dumped hundreds of dollars' worth of French wine and champagne down the toilet to protest France's anti-war position at the United Nations. According to an AP report, Tola replaced the stock partly with wines from Australia (whose prime minister, John Howard, is a Bush war ally).

            How many French wine corks are unpopping in the Rochester area? It's hard to tell. We called several large liquor stores here to see how customers were reacting. A large suburban store and two distributors didn't return calls. "It's a non-issue so far," said an unidentified person answering the phone at Henrietta Discount Liquor, in a rushed conversation.

            Near the end of February, WROC-TV Channel 8 ran a web poll, asking if people would boycott products from France or Germany because those nations aren't going along with US demands at the UN. The unscientific poll, which ran for five days, registered 155 in favor of boycotting and 139 against.

            On another front, a local commentator who might be expected to deliver a tongue-lashing held back --- relatively. "It kills me to say it. But I don't hate them," wrote Bob Lonsberry recently. "I don't think we should change the name of French fries." (The delicacy has been rechristened "freedom fries" in some sub-gourmet establishments.)

            "I'm not sure what is gained by pouring French wine down the drain," Lonsberry continued. "I'm not seeing the point of turning our frustration and anger toward the French. Because, frankly, they're not worth it."

            Lonsberry dissed the French for "greasy hair and poor hygiene habits," and because "their women don't shave." And the column ended with nice words for "our warriors."

This might be comic if it weren't connected to real relationships, personal as well as transoceanic.

            Take Rochester's long relationship with the government and people of one French city.

            Rennes officially became Rochester's "Sister City" in 1958, says Terry Mathews-DeSant, chair of the Rennes-Rochester Sister City Committee. "I've been involved the whole 45 years," she says, adding she's formed friendships with the mayor of Rennes, his wife, and others there. The city-to-city relationship actually began in 1956, she says, with a visit by the Rennes mayor, just a month after President Eisenhower established "people-to-people" connections for peace.

            Today, says Mathews-DeSant, the people of Rennes "are very, very anxious to have communication." They're also grateful, she says, for American help given after World War II through the Marshall Plan. Moreover, she says, contradicting a stereotype some Americans hold of the French, the people of Rennes are always very welcoming toward American visitors. (She agrees this stereotyping also harms some Americans' attitudes toward the Francophone people of Québec.)

            Is today's political mood raising barriers, though? "I do fear [it]," says Mathews-DeSant. "I'm uptight about the attitude everyone is taking about the French." She finds the attitude strangely selective, too: "It's not just the French that are against the war."

            On May 13, the Rennes-Rochester relationship will get a boost. According to Mathews-DeSant, local Sister Cities participants and Rennes officials will rededicate the "Pont de Rennes" pedestrian/bicycle bridge (formerly the Platt Street Bridge), which crosses the lower Genesee Gorge at High Falls. The plaque, she says, will give some background about Rennes and its history with Rochester.

            DeSant notes that beside the name Pont de Rennes, there's not much educational material on-site, at present.

Then there's the German connection.

            You'd think some Americans might be nursing grudges based on Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's outspokenness against the Bush war. But the legions of the prejudiced don't seem to be going after Germany with the same passion, at least not on the home front.

            Edie Fuchs, co-chair of the Würzburg-Rochester Sister City Committee, says she's heard of nothing comparable to statements or boycotts against the French. She emphasizes that sister-city links are about friendship, not politics. "People are the same whether it's on this side of the ocean or on that side," says the native of a town near Hannover, Germany.

            Renaming French fries (not a French dish in any case) and other such protests are "childish," says Fuchs. But she points to some serious business of cultural bridge-building: the Rochester-Novgorod Sister City relationship, which defied the Cold War and the stereotyping of the Soviet people.

            But wouldn't you know? Like the majority of the world's people, the Russians today are against Bush's warmaking.

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