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At State House, the French are still Strongly in Fashion

March 20th, 2003

By PAUL CARRIER, Portland Press Herald Writer Copyright – 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

AUGUSTA – The French are a people scorned in America these days, thanks to France’s vocal opposition to a war against Iraq. But the mood was far different at the State House on Wednesday, where Maine’s strong Franco-American heritage was celebrated and the French language echoed from one end of the Capitol to the other. French bashers were nowhere to be heard during Maine’s second annual Franco-American Day, but their assaults were on the minds of some people who took part in the daylong event.

Almost a quarter of Maine’s 1.2 million people claim French or French Canadian ancestry, according to the 2000 census. If participants in Wednesday’s festivities are any indication, Maine’s Franco-Americans are of many minds on the anti-French sentiment that has swept the country in recent weeks. Some are personally offended by attempts to characterize the French as cowards, pacifists or ingrates, either because such attacks ignore France’s many contributions to America or because they disagree with President Bush’s handling of the Iraqi crisis. “Vive la France,” said Rep. Joanne Twomey, D-Biddeford, who grew up speaking French in York County and addressed an anti-war rally in Quebec City in French last month. “I’m very proud that France did what they did because it reflects my beliefs.”

Most of Maine’s Franco-Americans are of French Canadian descent. In most cases, their ancestors sailed from France to what is now Canada in the 17th century and their families lived there for hundreds of years before moving to the United States. So even French-speaking Franco-Americans often feel no more connected to France than Hispanics with Mexican roots feel emotionally tied to Spain. “Our ancestry is from Canada,” said Democratic Rep. Richard Mailhot, a Franco-American from Lewis- ton. “I don’t think of myself as of French ancestry.” As a result, Mailhot said, American hostility toward France “doesn’t upset me a bit.” The French tried to settle on St. Croix Island near Calais in 1604, established a permanent settlement in what is now Nova Scotia in 1605 and founded Quebec in 1608. That was 12 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. Some Franco-Americans say they are deeply offended by the claim that France has forgotten its debt to America, because those who make that argument ignore America’s debt to France. “Without the French during the Revolutionary War, we would not have a free country, as we do today,” said Lionel Guay Jr. of Lewiston, the founder of the Franco-American Heritage Center in that city. “People forget history,” he said. France sent money, munitions, troops and ships to help the American cause during the Revolution and the Marquis de Lafayette was a major general in George Washington’s army. A century later, France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States and it remains “probably the best gift the United States has been given” by anyone, said Donat Boisvert, coordinator of the Franco-American Heritage Collection at Lewiston-Auburn College. For decades, some Franco-Americans said Wednesday, children were penalized for speaking French in Maine. The Ku Klux Klan campaigned against Jews and French Catholics in Maine in the 1920s. And as recently as the early 1990s, a southern Maine radio station created a statewide furor by running a comedy routine featuring a dim-witted Franco-American character known as Frenchie. The feature was dropped in 1993. “We didn’t deserve it then,” former state legislator Judy Paradis of Frenchville said of the prejudice aimed at Franco-Americans, and the people of France “don’t deserve it now.” Some Franco-Americans who have spent time in France said Wednesday the French people are extremely fond of Americans, and do not deserve to be vilified for their perceived anti-American sentiments. “To see the American flag flying proud and straight at that (veterans) cemetery (in Normandy) was a very moving experience,” said Patrick Paradis of Augusta, a former state legislator whose French ancestors settled in Canada in 1638. The French people are “very pro-American,” he said.

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Franco American Studies
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