Monday, 15 January 2018

Lafayette nous voilà!

One of the staples of transatlantic relations is the enduring friendship between France and the United States of America. In a TV interview in November, President Macron, as a preface to his comments on President Trump’s attitude towards global warming and Iran, declared: “the Americans are our allies. We helped the American people to win independence and they helped us every time our security was threatened”.  He was referring of course, among other things, to the role of Count Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette alongside George Washington during the American war of independence and the famous words attributed to General Pershing  (but probably uttered by his aide-de-camp) at Lafayette’s grave after landing in France at the head his troops in 1917: “Lafayette nous voila!" In his New year’s address to the French people, Macron even went so far as to echo John F. Kennedy’s words at his inaugural address in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” In the U.S, countless streets, towns and cities are named after Lafayette and many statues have been erected to honour his memory. There are no less than three in New York, one in Union Square Park, sculpted by Statue of Liberty sculptor, Bartholdi, one in Lafayette Park, Harlem and one on an impressive frieze along the wall of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, commissioned by Henry Harteau, a Brooklyn citizen of French ancestry, who had these words inscribed on it: … “an enduring tribute to one who as friend and companion of the immortal Washington fought to establish in our country those vital principles of liberty and human brotherhood which he afterward labored to establish in his own.”

Relations between the two countries have not always been as warm as such tributes would suggest. A book published in 2004, written by an American journalist, John J. Miller and a historian, Mark Molesky (“Our oldest enemy”- “a history of America’s disastrous relationship with France”) romps through the history of bilateral relations with a distinctly jaundiced eye.  The book’s provocative title is only a prelude to the blackening of France’s reputation in the body of the text. France is accused at many junctures in history of deviousness, crude anti-Americanism and frequent attempts to thwart American, and by extension, the world’s interests, in pursuit of its own devious ends. From France's attempts to establish itself in the New World by conspiring with Indian tribes to massacre English settlers, to Napoleon Bonaparte’s designs on Louisiana, Napoleon 3rd’s support for the Confederacy during the Civil War and his failed attempts to install a puppet regime in Mexico, the thwarting by Clemenceau of Woodrow Wilson’s urge to  “make the world safe for democracy” by working for a more balanced version of the Versailles Treaty than the one that was eventually imposed on Germany in 1919, the obstructionism and “gallic pomposity” of Gaulle, after World War 2, the condescending arrogance of  the French cultural elite towards American popular culture in the 1950s and 60,  and finally  the "duplicitous" behaviour of Jacques Chirac in expressing unending sympathy for America  after 9/11 but refusing to take part in President Bush’s invasion of Irak. Published in 2004, the book was of course intended to surf on the wave of anti-French sentiment  following France’s refusal to participate in the "war on terror”, and it is therefore understandable that the authors did their best to cast the French in the worst possible light.  However, even George Washington, as recorded in the book, noted that: “…it is a maxim founded in the universal experience of mankind that no nation can be trusted further than it is bound by its interests”. The authors go to great lengths to blame the French for thwarting American interests but, unsurprisingly, make little attempt to explain or justify them. Little matter, the book makes entertaining reading!

Even these authors, however, warm to Lafayette. During America’s struggle for independence, they write, “there was at least one Frenchman however, whose concern for America seemed motivated by something other than raw self-interest”, even if they add, a couple of pages later, that, "in truth it is not altogether clear how well Lafayette actually understood the principles he was fighting for ”, and by extension therefore that, “for more than two centuries, whenever tensions arose between the United States and France, the French rarely missed an opportunity to invoke the memory of Lafayette as a way of shielding their true motives”.

Indeed, Lafayette might not have expressed the principles he was fighting for at the time of the American Revolution in the way historians have done since, but there is no doubting the sincerity of his convictions. And in the ultra turbulent times of the French revolution, some 20 years later, it was certainly not easy to “establish those principles of liberty and human brotherhood”, in the words of Harteau’s tribute. By all accounts, Lafayette was a moderate at a time of extremists, a bringer of order at a time of anarchy, in favour of establishing a constitutional monarchy in the aftermath of a monarch’s bloody execution. As the revolution spiralled out of control, he only saved his head by being outside the country, having been taken prisoner by the Austrians during the revolutionary wars. And while his wife, from the de Noailles aristocratic family, was able to escape from revolutionary Paris and join her husband, her sister, mother and grandmother all fell victim to the reign of terror, during which more than 1300 people were executed on the same guillotine in June and July of 1794.  During the post revolutionary period, Lafayette's relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte was strained, to say the least, and he spent the remaining years of his life as a moderate member of the Chamber of Deputies, playing a pivotal role in the mini Revolution of July 1830 when the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe was installed on the throne.

Lafayette’s last resting place, since his death in 1834, is the Picpus cemetery in Paris. I found it a strange place in many ways when I visited it recently, a small haven of peace and quiet, next to a noisy building site for a new university and across the road  from a large car dealership. The small number of elaborate tombs holding the remains of some of France’s most aristocratic families stand just yards away from three mass graves in which the bodies of many of those executed during the reign of terror were hastily and secretly buried in land that was consecrated only years later. Lafayette’s grave is easily recognisable in the far corner, with inscriptions in French and English and decorated with an American flag. It also holds American soil, brought back for this very purpose by Lafayette himself from his triumphant tour of America in 1824. Every year on July 4th, an American delegation runs up a fresh flag over the grave of its honorary citizen and lays a wreath. As to the ideals of liberty and human brotherhood, the universalist message of both France and the United States, they continue to resonate and inspire throughout the world, from China to Russia, from Iran to Tunisia, to name just a few of its more recent manifestations.

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