April 17, 2004


PARDON? (Joshua Kurlantzick, 2004-04-19, The New Yorker)

Alain de Chalvron, the Washington bureau chief for France 2, the French equivalent of the BBC, hasn’t had an easy time since he came to America, last fall. He has had to endure a predictable barrage of remarks regarding freedom fries, Old Europe, and the “Axis of Weasel,” along with a reticent White House, which has made it hard for foreign journalists to get briefings. So when John Kerry became the front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination de Chalvron and other French journalists in Washington were understandably excited. They knew about Kerry: he went to a Swiss boarding school, he has a cousin who ran for the French Presidency, and he supposedly wooed Teresa Heinz by impressing her with his fluent French.

For a time, Kerry seemed equally enthusiastic about the French reporters covering his campaign. “He was quite accessible in Iowa and New Hampshire,” de Chalvron said the other day, in his office in Washington. “He understands French very well. His words are correct and sometimes even sophisticated. I asked him, ‘How can you have this life? It must be terrible, crisscrossing the country.’ Kerry answered, ‘C’est affreux’—‘It’s awful.’” De Chalvron’s voice rose with admiration. “Affreux, it’s not a very usual word. It’s something a French person can use easily, but Kerry could have said, ‘Yes, it’s terrible,’ instead of going to pick a more difficult word.”

Everything changed, though, when, in recent months, Republicans started intimating that Kerry was too Continental. Conservatives complained about his touting of endorsements from foreign leaders, and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans told reporters that Kerry “looks French.” Right-wing talk-show hosts began referring to him as “Monsieur Kerry” and “Jean Cheri.” A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French anthropologist known for identifying the subconscious associations that people from various cultures make in the “reptilian” part of their brains, had offered to become the Senator’s Gallic Naomi Wolf, devising ways for him to rid his speaking style of French influences.

Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia. “During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq,” de Chalvron recalled. “He didn’t answer. In front of the American journalists, he didn’t want to take a question that was not in English.” Loïck Berrou, the United States bureau chief for de Chalvron’s competitor, TF1, has been having similar problems. Berrou chatted in French with Kerry on a commercial flight last year; the Senator reminisced about his family’s country house in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in Brittany, where Kerry’s cousin is the mayor. “We’ve pushed hard to get an interview with him, and no answer,” Berrou says.

Family members have apparently been put on a leash as well.

You can take the cabana boy out of France, but you can't take the France out of the cabana boy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2004 8:01 AM
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