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Nous Somme Tous Francais PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, December 03 2015 17:40

 Recently I gave a talk on current events to some twenty-five people, most of them close to my age. Before beginning to discuss the ISIS attack on Paris, I  asked them to raise their hands if they had ever visited the city.

Predictably, almost all of my listeners had been to Paris.  Since the time of Benjamin Franklin, Americans have always loved the city.

It is not hard to understand why we now grieve. The online headline “Paris under Siege” recalled what counts among the worst moments in the city’s history. And the brutal and senseless deaths brought back the brutal and senseless terrifying memories of 9/11.

Many of us have our own happier memories of Paris. I first encountered the city in the summer of 1964 when I spent several delightful months learning to speak French.  I was about to spend a year studying theology in Brussels, and I needed to acquire some practical navigating skills.

Like many Americans of my generation, I had been taught to conjugate irregular verbs but not to ask directions or order a meal. My high school French teacher and I got along well, but his inability to discipline our classroom limited the effectiveness of his language teaching.    

 In Paris, though, I had the advantage of living with fellow Jesuits. That meant I could speak French with them during every meal. That must have tested their patience, but I gradually learned to speak and to understand. 

I always dreaded the one-word question “Comment?” or “What on earth do you mean?” At the end of three months, I was happy to hear it much less often.

In the process I also came to appreciate the beauties of Paris and its environs. Of course, I was enchanted by the Seine River, Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle, and I spent hours strolling through the streets of the city.

Sometimes I would stop at a sidewalk café for a cool drink and some people-watching.

From the oldest to the youngest among them, Parisians seemed to me to be brimming over with elegance and charm. Despite my clerical state I could not help observing that Paris had more than its fair share of captivating young women.

On August 25th I went out to see the crowds celebrating the anniversary of the twentieth liberation of Paris.  I happened on a public square where President de Gaulle was addressing the crowd.

Afterwards, as he passed among the people, he came near me.  I reached out my hand and hailed him. “Bonjour, monsieur,” he replied as he shock my hand. This gesture made me feel welcome, and proud to be in a place that American soldiers had helped set free.

These experiences in the great city stirred my enthusiasm for the French people and made me want to know them better. I still feel this way.

What disturbs me now is the possibility that some of these people will be tempted to embrace the politics of the far right.  What if the anti-immigrant Marie Le Pen should come to power in the next election?

I realize the need for change in a country that I came to know so long ago. However my hope is for that country to continue supporting what has made her great and beautiful.

And I hope that my own country will remain a close friend of France.  The relationship that began with the American Revolution should continue to benefit both.

After 9/11, the newspaper Le Monde expressed the nation’s sympathy: “We are all Americans.” And this week, appropriately, President Obama echoed the sentiment: “Nous sommes tous des Francais.”