'Monsieur' John Kerry and the French connection
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Secretary of state nominee John Kerry has strong ties to France, a fact that hindered his 2004 presidential bid. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at how this “French connection” has been perceived on both sides of the Atlantic.
Reacting to President Barack Obama’s recent nomination of John Kerry as the next US secretary of state, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius praised his future counterpart’s “personal commitment to Franco-American friendship”.
The comment was a reference to a poorly-kept “secret” that dogged the former Democratic presidential candidate during his bid to unseat then-incumbent George W. Bush in 2004: Kerry has a French connection.
The Massachusetts senator attended a Swiss boarding school as a child, learning to speak fluent French –which reportedly worked wonders in courting his wife, Teresa Heinz, whose parents were Portuguese.
He spent summers at his maternal grandparents’ luxurious home in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in the north-western coastal region of Brittany. And he counts Brice Lalonde, a former French green party leader and an environment minister in the early 1990s, as one of his first cousins (Lalonde did not respond to an interview request for this article).
Kerry’s ties to France are indeed part of the reason that “reactions to his nomination have been extremely positive on both the right and left in France,” according to Nicole Bacharan, a specialist in French-American relations and national fellow at Stanford’s public policy think tank, the Hoover Institution.
“He’s obviously very competent and very knowledgeable about foreign policy,” Bacharan said. “But of course the French like him especially because he knows France well and speaks good French.”
Kerry’s strong relationship with France will likely be an advantage in his future as America's top diplomat, particularly in Europe. “When you’re secretary of state, it’s a good thing to be perceived as worldly and sophisticated,” Bacharan noted.
But the politician’s “Frenchness” has not always been an advantage. While running for president in 2004, Kerry was ridiculed by Republicans for his closeness to the country seen as having spurned the US by refusing to participate in the Iraq war –though Kerry himself initially voted in favour of the war.
Donald Evans, a commerce secretary under Bush, quipped that Kerry was “of a different political stripe and looks French”, and then-House majority leader Tom DeLay kicked off several speeches to constituents by saying: “Hi. Or, as John Kerry might say, ‘Bonjour’”.
Meanwhile, right-wing pundits, radio and TV hosts at the time often mockingly referred to Kerry as “Monsieur Kerry”, “Jean Chéri”, or “Jean-François Kerry”.
Mindful that any perceived affection for a nation considered a fair-weather ally could be a major liability, Kerry, for the duration of his campaign, largely avoided any reference to his past in France or his attachment to the country, its language, or culture. It was reported that he stopped conversing with French correspondents in French, something he had done with much-noted pleasure for many months.
Though French-American relations have warmed considerably since 2004, Kerry is likely to keep a relatively low profile when it comes to his Gallic "roots". “I don’t think he’ll flash his French connection other than when he’s in France,” Bacharan predicted. “It’s generally not a good thing for a US politician to flaunt any sort of Frenchness.”
And despite Kerry’s popularity among the French and international political class, Bacharan explained that enthusiasm for Kerry abroad is nevertheless tempered by disappointment that current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be stepping down.
“It’s very difficult to be Obama’s secretary of state, because foreign leaders are inevitably disappointed when they don’t get to receive or meet with Obama himself,” Bacharan noted. “Hillary, because she’s a huge star with very unique charisma, could compensate for some of that disappointment. I’m not sure Kerry can.”