Mon Dieu! Romney, Gingrich have hidden French ties
Leading Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich share more than a burning desire to pocket the keys to the White House. They have both also spent time in France and speak the language.
But it is not an asset either man has openly trumpeted in a country where French fries were once officially renamed Freedom Fries, and where all things Gallic are viewed with a suspicion that at times spills over into open scorn.
Millionaire businessman Romney spent more than two years living in Paris and Bordeaux in the 1960s, working as a Mormon missionary.
And Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, spent several years in Orleans as a youth when his father was posted there as a soldier, during a period when France still hosted US military bases.
Neither man, however, makes mention of those halcyon days in their official campaign biographies, whitewashing all references in hopes of not raising eyebrows, especially among the Republican conservative base.
Memories still run deep here, and many conservatives have not forgiven France for vigorously opposing the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when a torrent of public vitriol was unleashed against the French.
As ties plunged to a new low, the Americans mocked the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and the House of Representatives cafeteria renamed French fries.
Romney has been lampooned in past weeks for being caught on video speaking French while out stumping on the campaign trail, as he bids to be crowned the Republican candidate and take on Democrat President Barack Obama in the November 2012 elections.
He has retained a halting command of the language after he spent 30 months in France criss-crossing from Paris to Pau in the south via Limoges, the northwestern coastal towns Brest and Le Havre, and Bordeaux.
"Being in a foreign place in a foreign language with a foreign faith, you really do a lot of soul searching about what you believe and what you're going to do with the rest of your life," Romney said later, according to the Boston Globe.
One of the Americans who accompanied Romney on the trip, Michael Bush, told AFP: "We got up every day at 6:00 am. We washed, ate and then studied French and the Bible.
"Around 9:00 am we set off in teams of two going door-to-door."
"Some people liked us because we were Americans, others shut the door in our faces telling us 'Get out of Vietnam,'" Bush told AFP, speaking in French.
Andre Salarnier, who was in charge of the Talence chapel near Bordeaux, where Romney would head every Sunday, said he had no doubts that his dinner guest was "a francophile."
"Romney was very open with us in the way he acted with us, compared to many Americans who didn't know a thing about France."
After his time in western Bordeaux, Romney spent a few months in the capital Paris. "I remember him driving around the streets on a motorbike. He spoke good French, he was pleasant and learnt about French culture. He even mastered the art of French irony," said fellow Mormon Christian Euvrard, 58.
Romney was in Paris when the May 1968 student protests erupted leading to the country's largest general strike ever.
"It was an interesting time for us, but it was tough," Bush said. Due to the strike the Americans were unable to receive funds from their families. "Mitt had to go to Spain to get the cash."
Then in June 1968, Romney was driving a Citroen DS 21 when he was hit by another car. A woman passenger in his car was killed instantly, and Romney was hospitalized for several days.
His father, who was then governor of Michigan, sent his personal doctor to France to oversee his care. Finally at the end of 1968 Romney returned to the United States.
The French past of Romney's rival in the 2012 White House race Newt Gingrich is less well known. From 1956 to 1958, Gingrich lived in Orleans between the ages of 14 to 16.
He tells how he had a revelation when visiting the ossuary memorial at the World War I battlefield of Verdun with his father in 1958.
"As a young man, I planned on becoming a zoo director or a vertebrate paleontologist," Gingrich writes in a book. "Yet during one special weekend as a teenager, I learned a powerful lesson that sparked my dream of entering public office and becoming a leader of our nation."
In his biography "The gentleman of Georgia," he recalls, "That last day was probably the most stunning event of my life. It was a sense of coming face to face with an unavoidable reality."
In the book, author Mel Steely tells how Gingrich lived for several months in a hotel while he attended an American high school. Later he and his family went to live in a chateau in the Loire valley.
Newt "had enough French to survive" when he would go off exploring the city on his own, the author said.
© 2011 AFP