Letter From Paris

Kerry Chéri

Finally the French have one of their own as secretary of state.

By From the March 2013 issue

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It’s been a long wait, but at last the French can delight in seeing their favorite American politician win a top role. When it became clear that Barack Obama’s first choice to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Susan Rice, could not live down her inept talk-show comments about the attack on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi, John Forbes Kerry was next in line for the job. That was all it took for French commentators to begin singing his praises once again. Indeed, Kerry bids fair to become the most popular American in France since Jerry Lewis or Michael Moore.

Commentators agreed enthusiastically with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s effusive resolution praising Kerry as a man with “honor, conviction and a sense of civility,” along with commendable “patience, fair-mindedness and tenacity,” who embodies “a voice of courage and conscience.” That was all very nice, of course, but the really important thing was that American diplomacy now surely would be personified by a European-style, nay, French-style secretary of state. With all that implies: due respect for anti-Western international institutions (UNESCO!), treaties (Law of the Sea!), a fondness for interminable multilateral negotiations, handholding dialogue with dictators, outreach to our reliable friends in the Middle East. And no more unilateral military action to promote and defend America’s own selfish interests; any such individual initiatives would have to pass a “global test.” The thinking Frenchman just couldn’t wait for the day when Kerry set up shop at Foggy Bottom.

To grasp the breadth and depth of French fervor over Kerry’s appointment, a bit of history is in order.

France first fell in love with him during the 2004 election, when the media painted an adoring portrait. The first all-important point, of course, was that he spoke French. That alone proved he was civilized in the Gallic mode, unlike that gross, bellicose Texan then in the White House. His fluency in the tongue of Molière was the happy result, they noted, of several childhood summers spent in the Breton village of Saint-Briac with a French cousin, Brice Lalonde. (Another common bond with Lalonde, who later became a particularly feckless leftist politician of the ecological stripe, is that they are both losers; Lalonde lost his bid for the French presidency in 1981.) Then too, Kerry’s wife could say hello in five languages, and how European is that? The editor of Le Monde paid him what he considered the ultimate compliment when he told a New York audience that Kerry “even looks French.”

Sadly, that didn’t come across so well beyond the sophisticated precincts of Manhattan. It was picked up by boorish American politicos and commentators and used, unforgivably, as an insult. George Bush’s commerce secretary, Don Evans, declared that Kerry was “of a different political stripe and looks French.” Churlish conservative talk-show hosts and columnists began referring mockingly to Monsieur Kerry and Jean Chéri. Tom DeLay, then Republican House majority leader, got easy laughs by opening his speeches with: “Hi. Or as John Kerry might say, Bonjour.” Even the usually solemn, sober-sided editor of The American Spectator, Bob Tyrrell, impishly insisted on calling him Jean-François Kerry.

No matter. Polls showed that some 90 percent of all French fervently hoped for a Kerry victory in 2004—prompting a bumptious Le Figaro headline a week before the election, “Kerry Wins French Plebiscite.” As we know, it was not to be. Some French TV and radio newscasts, misled by early exit polls, gleefully reported that Kerry had won. But as the results came in, the fallen faces of TV anchors first reflected disbelief, then profound dismay. One lady burst into tears on camera as she announced the dreadful news. A quick poll showed that Bush’s win was “a catastrophe” for 43 percent of the French, and “bad news” for another 26 percent. The trauma they felt was proportional to the high hopes they had for a President Kerry.

Thus the unconfined joy in France now over the new head of American foreign policy. And it’s not as though the French selfishly considered it a positive development only from their point of view. It is also, as Le Monde headlined, “Good News for America.” For that matter, the paper declared, it’s also good news for Latin Americans: Kerry, it noted with approval, opposed Ronald Reagan’s policies on Central America and Nicaragua, favors the right of all Americans to visit Cuba, and looks likely to back citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants (mostly Hispanic) in the U.S. Moreover, they expect the benefits of Kerry diplomacy to spread worldwide, thanks to his politically correct concern for the global environment.

BUT WHAT MOST PLEASES the French is that, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s Someone Like Us. You know, he’s a Catholic, comes from “the East Coast aristocracy,” and descends from “the famous Forbes and Winthrop families,” all of which, transliterated into the French mindset, must surely mean he’s snobbish and snooty—what could be more French? Thus Le Figaro proudly trumpeted: “Kerry, a ‘Frenchman’ in the State Department.” He is, it averred, “an old friend of France, a Francophile who speaks French perfectly and who knows us inside out.” Warming to its subject with a vengeance, it lauded him poetically as “a tall, elegant patrician with a long, melancholy face who was nourished from childhood with the milk of Europe.” Not to mention that he was “a hero of the Vietnam war” before adopting the French position and turning against it. In the same spirit, some of my French friends note fondly that he even has the same initials as their other American political idol, John Kennedy. And that dashing coiffure! No wonder Kerry makes hearts beat faster from Saint-Germain-des-Prés to Montparnasse.

French officialdom is smart enough to muffle its reaction to the new man at State, but leaked remarks make clear its pleasure and high hopes. Kerry’s comment to the Foreign Relations Committee that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone” is music to diplomatic ears at the Quai d’Orsay. The French embassy in Washington let it be known that, thanks to Kerry’s familiarity with the situation in Mali, it counts on more support from him than just a couple of U.S. Air Force transport and refueling planes for France’s hastily conceived military operation there. “Kerry is our objective ally,” a Quai source told one newspaper. “He really believes in a strong relationship with us.” In other words, now let’s see him walk the walk.

Clearly he shares the French Weltanschauung. From humanitarian assistance for all, to environmental issues and climate change, to human rights and development aid, French policymakers have made his nomination hearing their favorite bedtime reading. But at least, as one expects of the French, they are being eminently logical. Only a few months ago they rejoiced in Obama’s re-election as a sign of America’s further commitment to social democracy. Now they look forward to working with a secretary of state who will be a faithful mouthpiece for his liberal agenda on the world stage. Let the Washington-Paris love fest begin.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.