Cheese eaters vs. hamburger eaters

The mayor of Saint-Briac, Kerry's French first cousin, tries to keep a low profile, and hopes for better relations between the U.S. and France under the Democrat's leadership.

By Amelia Gentleman
Published October 28, 2004 1:20PM (EDT)

The villagers of Saint-Briac-Sur-Mer are peculiarly obsessed by the American presidential election. In the Bar de la Mairie at lunchtime, there's a sophisticated dissection of the latest televised debate, which several people have stayed up until 4 in the morning to watch. Like most people in Europe, the bar's occupants are rooting for John Kerry, but here the support for the Democratic candidate is fervent. "It's looking good," one woman says, fresh off the golf course. "I wouldn't be too confident," another regular responds, frowning into his wine glass. "Everything depends on the swing states."

The source of this unusual fascination with the U.S. campaign lies with the local mayor, an influential environmental campaigner, former government minister and himself a onetime presidential candidate, who sports a "Vote John Kerry" sticker in the rear window of his Volvo. Although Democratic campaigners in the U.S. have asked him to keep quiet about it, everyone here knows that Mayor Brice Lalonde is Kerry's first cousin. Their mothers are sisters who spent much of their childhood in this Brittany village.

If Saint-Briac-sur-Mer is full of enthusiasm for Kerry, the feeling is not reciprocated. In the current climate of U.S. Francophobia, these close French ties are perceived as positively dangerous to the Democrats' campaign -- to the extent that Kerry has stopped showing off his French in public, deflects questions about his European roots and never refers to the family estate in Saint-Briac. The U.S. side of the clan is so desperate to avoid damaging association with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys that when Lalonde traveled to support his cousin at the Democratic Convention in August, many of his relatives were horrified.

"One part of the family refused to speak French with me and wanted me to hide," he says. "Having French relatives is not seen as an advantage; I really sensed the anti-French feeling during the convention. It was extremely painful."

Lalonde, 58, has been advised not to talk to the French press in case Republican researchers seize on his opinions as fuel for anti-Kerry campaigning. President Bush has already scored points by portraying his rival as excessively concerned about other countries' opinions. Kerry's comment that foreign policy should pass a "global test" has become a key line of attack, and the president has said with disdain that "countries like France" should not be allowed to influence U.S. decisions. Hinting at Kerry's Continental ties, White House officials spat the worst insult possible at him: "He looks French." "I don't want the French media to start saying that Kerry is French, or that Kerry is the French candidate. The Republican press could manipulate the French headlines in a way that would be very damaging for Kerry," Lalonde says.

This enforced secrecy is a pity, because Lalonde might have some useful advice to offer his cousin. It's true that his presidential bid in 1981 brought him just 3 percent of the vote -- a result that he hopes Kerry will beat -- but in his more recent campaign to be elected as mayor, he gained a backing of 80 percent. "To be a successful candidate, you must be careful what you eat and you must be sure to sleep well," he says, as he works his way through a plate of three dozen oysters, bought from the Friday market in the square opposite the mairie.

Lalonde's empire is somewhat smaller than the one his cousin is fighting for. Saint-Briac has only 2,000 permanent residents, although it expands to 12,000 in the summer when tourists flock to the beaches. Its economy once rested on fishing and agriculture, but now centers on tourism, and out of season it's a gloomy place -- most of the houses are shuttered, the souvenir shops are closed and the crazy golf course is deserted. During mayoral meetings, Lalonde discusses villagers' concerns about rising property prices and coastal pollution. Residents have never experienced a terrorist attack, and don't even have a crime problem to speak of.

The family's Saint-Briac connection may be something of an embarrassment to Kerry, but it was crucial to Lalonde's 1995 mayoral campaign. He attributes his success to the residual affection that everyone in the village has for his and Kerry's maternal grandmother, Margaret Winthrop Forbes, who retired and died here. "Everyone remembers our grandmother. She gave a lot of jobs to the villagers. She was a fine woman, an eccentric who insisted on having her cream brought from Jersey cows. The village was made up of fishermen and peasants at that time, and they liked her. That fondness for our grandmother has translated into fondness for Kerry and for me," he says.

All Lalonde's childhood summers were spent here, playing on the beaches with dozens of cousins, who traveled here every summer from America, Scotland, England and Switzerland. When Kerry's father was serving as a diplomat in Europe, John came often, and he and Lalonde -- a couple of years younger -- became close.

"Johnny was tall and always very fond of sport and organized all the games," he says. They would hunt for octopuses together in the shallows. "But we knew that he would be interested in public affairs. He was always a very serious boy -- he would joke around and play and have fun, but he was always very serious beneath, steady and thoughtful." He has a clear memory of the day Kerry rang to say that he was leaving to fight in Vietnam. "He phoned to say goodbye; we were all very anxious for him," he says.

By this time Lalonde was already busy launching his own career in public life. As leader of the Sorbonne student union, he orchestrated one of the sit-ins that led to the nationwide 1968 demonstrations, and for a while he was at the epicenter of the social revolution in France. After graduating, he took his protest skills to America, where he worked with Friends of the Earth, advising them how to organize shock protests. He was with the vanguard of campaigners against nuclear testing in the Pacific; later he sacrificed his extreme positions to accept the post of environment minister with François Mitterrand's government, and then, when he resigned, devoted himself to running a national Green party, Génération Ecologie.

His conventional political career was always halfhearted. "I don't like politicians and I don't like politics," he says. "Politics is not about the truth, it's about winning." He felt that he had to join the game in order to push forward his environmental agenda, but he abandoned national campaigning in the mid-'90s to focus on a collection of other interests -- his concern for women's rights in the Middle East and his mission to plant more pistachio trees in the dry wilds of Afghanistan. He is as passionate about Afghanistan as he is about the environment, and in 1999, after a trip to the country to meet now-dead Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, went so far as to call the White House to warn it about the threat posed by al-Qaida. Perhaps bemused by this panicky call from the mayor of Saint-Briac, the White House did nothing: "Nobody listened to me."

Lalonde's responsibilities as mayor occupy only two days a week; the rest of the time he spends in Paris working as an environmental consultant. But another of his obsessions is France's troubled relationship with America. The Democrats are wrong to be so afraid of him, because he is one of France's few self-confessed Americophiles. He was one of a tiny minority in France to believe that the American campaign in Iraq was wise (although he now thinks with hindsight he might have been "a little betrayed" by the Bush administration), and he is as furious at the French for their hostility to America as he is depressed by the current U.S. distaste for France.

"It's politically correct in France to challenge America, or to say that Americans are just all hamburger-eaters," he says. He hopes his cousin will improve relations if he comes to power. "France should not lead an anti-American crusade; it's stupid. We need America's leadership, but only one that's based on excellence -- not on pure might and pure force. We are allies. We are the same civilization. We need them."

It has been 20 years since Kerry last made it back to the beaches where he spent his childhood summers, but he and Lalonde meet intermittently when one or the other passes through Washington or Paris. Many of the other clan members frequently gather in Saint-Briac for reunions, and a family newsletter is sent out regularly. Despite the official nervousness at the French mayor's presence at the Democratic Convention, Kerry welcomed him with affection.

Lalonde was a close follower of the Democratic movement long before Kerry became its candidate. He advised Al Gore on environmental issues in an informal way during his campaign in 2000. Kerry shares some of his environmental concerns, and Lalonde is confident that he will get the U.S. to sign the Kyoto convention (which both cousins helped negotiate). He says he won't go out to help Kerry on environmental policy or lobby him on green issues if he is victorious, commenting: "I think the truth is that a Frenchman cannot influence anything of a foreign country's policy because it doesn't work like that."

But Lalonde is not ready to congratulate Kerry just yet. "Let's wait until he's elected before getting too excited. I also stood for the presidency. There was nothing to be proud about there."

Amelia Gentleman

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