Learning to Love the French

December 21, 2007

View as Single Page
Learning to Love the French

I am a Franco-American. By that moniker, I am not claiming kinship with the brand of canned spaghetti, but rather am using a somewhat antique term for descendants of the French-Canadians who flocked into New England between the Civil War and World War I. My Great-Grandfather, Joseph Coulombe, was born in Rimouski in the Province of Quebec, and arrived here in the 1880s; his son and grandson were born in the old whaling-turned-industrial town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Most of the emigration arrived in the States to work in the mills of New England; the Coulombes came to entertain them.

The New England Franco-Americans are a strange breed; coming from a culture heavily imbued with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the ethos of pre-Revolutionary France, they arrived in a land consecrated to the notions of “a Church without a Pope and a State without a King.” The inherent (and today almost completely lost) psychological conflict this dichotomy would engender in the psyches of the descendants of that emigration gave rise to a great deal of violence and alcoholism. One remembers Stephen King’s memorable characterization of our people in his short story “The Woman in the Room.” He describes a man driving in a Maine town, listening to French music on the radio: “Lewiston is still a French-speaking town, and they love their jigs and reels almost as much as they love to cut each other up in the bars on lower Lisbon Street.” For many, perhaps most, of New England French, the pressure to assimilate has led to loss of both the language and the Catholic faith of their ancestors, engendering for many a strange kind of nameless dread and guilt, made all the worse by the fact that it cannot be openly addressed. After all — how can conformity to the mainstream be a bad thing, especially when coupled with escape from dreary ethnic ghettoes in decaying industrial towns?

Whatever pain this mindset may cause, it has produced some mighty fine writers: names like Jack Kerouac, David Plante, and the Brothers Theroux. In the work of most such Franco-American writers there is an element of dreamy unreality, of impressionism, which many are quite willing to attribute to their heritage. Some resent that heritage; some regret it; but all seem to agree that it is irretrievably lost, the price of joining the great American club. Moreover, their success often seems somehow connected to the vociferousness with which they reject the religion and manners of their fathers. God forbid that one, such as Kerouac, might begin finding his way back — that would be sacrilege, in a secular sense (and would not bode too well for such a writer’s career or memory).

For my own part, I was fortunate. My father left New Bedford to serve in World War II, and then moved to New York where he met my Austro-English mother. When I was five, we moved to Hollywood. But for all that he embraced this country (and to some small degree suffered from the angst earlier described) he passed his religion and language on to his sons. It is not too much to say that in the socially and politically chaotic decades through which I have lived, being a practicing Catholic Francophone gave me both creative distance and a clear prism through which to gaze upon developments without being too caught up in them. As an added benefit, the wonder tales passed down from our ancestors that he told us — of the loup-garou, the lutin, the feux-follets, the chasse-gallerie, and so many more stimulated my imagination tremendously (as well as readied me for medieval literature). For, you see, in the mind of old French Canada, religion and wonder were mixed, and so it has ever been for me. The alternatives the culture in which I found myself in had to offer simply seemed dead, when not outright disgusting.

Added to this was that this Francophone heritage made me much more simpatico with the Hispanics amongst whom I found myself in Los Angeles. For all our differences, their attitudes and values often made more sense to me than did those of my Anglo friends. So many of their customs were close to ours, such as the crèche at Christmas and visiting the graves All Souls. My mother’s heritage made me sympathetic to Austria and the greater Germanic Catholic world as well. In time, what united the world’s various Catholic (and in truth, as I would discover, Orthodox as well) cultures was far greater than what divided them. This included the great sense of loss of heritage referred to earlier. What PBS’s advertising for their program, The Irish in America said of that group, “They got what they wanted; they lost what they had,” is true of all. Of course, one also began to realize that the same was true of various long-settled by economically neglected areas of the United States.

But alongside this catholicity of attitude, there arose in me two other realizations: one was of the tremendous anti-Catholicism of American culture as a whole, partly due to historic enmities, but also because of the increasing degeneracy of the nation’s elites, who found the Church’s moral teachings an ever greater reproach; but the other was a specifically anti-French bias.

I first became aware of it in grade school, studying the French and Indian War. The book we used opened with a blood curdling account of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690; we children were treated to an account of how awful the French and their Indian allies really were. What went unmentioned (until I — perhaps unwisely — did so) was that that raid was in reprisal for the more merciless — in terms of slaughter of women and children — Lachine Massacre of the year before. This observation on my part, earning me as it did a visit with the principal, taught me a valuable lesson.

Certainly, it became apparent through my entrance into adulthood that the French were ridiculed and attacked in a way that few other nationalities could be. Matters came to a head in my middle age, with the commencement of the great global democratic revolution, launched by Mr. Bush in 2003. For reasons of their own, the French decided against joining the great crusade — oh, sorry, I forgot; we’re not supposed ever to use that word again: my bad. In any case, they were universally excoriated as “Surrender Monkeys.” Most famously, the President ceremonially renamed “French Fries” as “Freedom Fries” (the Germanic side of my soul recalled Wilson similarly redubbing Sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage” in 1917).” With my brother and other friends and relations deployed in the great conflict, I was near to exploding; but John Kerry pushed me over the edge the following year.

Although a famously annoying and hypocritical man, one can understand Kerry’s casual attachment to his religion — it is traditional among Democrats, and, as one sees with Rudy Giuliani, can be with Republicans as well. But Kerry has many French relatives, and speaks the language well; despite this, he insisted upon using English with French reporters. Now, obviously, the Bush side would have attacked him for betraying his lack of linguistic ignorance, something many Americans are proud of; but it was a cowardly act.
In the meantime, an avalanche of books poured out, attacking France: Vile France, The Arrogance of the French, The French Betrayal of America, and best (or worst) of all, Our Oldest Enemy: best or worst because co-written by Mark Molesky, a truly fine writer. This latest tome opened with a heart-searing massacre from — you guessed it, the French and Indian War.

Now, before I launch into the diatribe and historical review for which all of this has served as introduction, a few things must be made clear. My father’s Franco-American New England is dead. The Quebec my ancestors left was destroyed by the Revolution Tranquille (“Quiet Revolution”) of the 1960s; totally secularized, its birthrate destroyed, its morality — sexual and otherwise — conforming to the Anglophone mode: it is a shell of itself.  The France whose language and religion I hold died in stages between 1789 and 1905. Just as Quebec is no longer the land of the voyageurs and Frontenac, Montcalm and Mgr. Laval, so too with la belle France et douce. She is not today the nation founded by the crowning and baptism of Clovis, the realm of Saints and Kings, the land where Ss. Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus arrived by boat; where Charlemagne and St. Louis ruled, and St. Joan of Arc fought; where the Knights of the Table Round prowled Breton forests, and the country was consecrated to Our Lady of the Assumption and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She is not even the land of the Sun King or the heroes of the Vendee.

Were one to be honest, even that France made some real howlers, from which we all suffer today (in my humble opinion, though most, perhaps all, will differ). Certainly, the siding of Francis I with the Turks and Louis XIII with the Protestants against the Habsburgs was a huge error. Not backing a Stuart restoration wholeheartedly led to future woes. Backing the American Revolutionaries was a huge blunder, both in the immediate and later (the bankruptcy that victory cost the Crown directly led to the guillotine). Napoleon III’s reluctance to recognize the Confederacy and break the blockade led directly to the failure of Maximilian’s Mexico. Even so, until the breaking of the Concordat, it was still possible to speak, at least in some sense, of the gesta Dei per Francorum. One cannot now.

Which being said, leads me to the necessary caveat. I have no political loyalty to any other country than this one. The United States are the nation to which Providence led my family on both sides, and whose welfare must be uppermost in my mind. The fact that what I consider her welfare and what her rulers do may differ may well lead to creative tension over gay “marriage” and the like, but this position of mine must be understood. Those historical actions that are about to be denounced must be so first and foremost because they derogate from America’s honor and well-being.

To begin with, it is perhaps inevitable that France and America should come into conflict: they are both arrogant nations: France because of her excellent and ancient culture and heritage from which she has fallen so far in the past century; and America because of her conviction that the God of the Calvinists in Whom she no longer believes has nevertheless blessed her above all other lands and set her “as a shining city upon the hill.” Two such colossal national egos, based upon such wildly differing premises, could hardly fail to come in conflict. To the average Frenchman, the United States are a band of uncultured striplings, whose sudden eruption upon the world scene, hamburgers, fries, and cokes in one hand, nukes in the other, determined to reduce the world to its own insufferable sterility. For the American, France is a nation of ungrateful whiners who not only have forgotten what was done for them in two world wars, they insist upon acting superior despite being political and military failures. Obviously, there is much truth in both views.

But it is a tad more complex than that. On the one hand, if the French have forgotten the two wars, Americans have also forgotten a few. For one thing, even in World War II, Roosevelt worked assiduously to undercut De Gaulle, attempting to substitute in his place as leader of Free France the more pliable General Giraud. Our support of the French effort in Indochina was equivocal; many Frenchmen blame the catastrophic defeat at Dienbienphu on refusal of promised American air support.

More important, perhaps, however, were Suez and Algeria. In the former conflict in 1956, the British and the French retook their Canal, secure in Eisenhower’s promise of support in the face of possible Soviet threats; the treats were forthcoming, the support was not, and the whole thing was a fiasco. Most interesting was the differing reaction of our two wronged allies: the British would never mount an independent effort again (even the Falkland War was possible for them only because American support), where the French would never trust us. This attitude was reinforced by our eventually successful threats to them over Algeria (with Kennedy in the Eisenhower role). We got what we wanted then, but this event ensured that when Johnson demanded control of the French nuclear arsenal, with departure from NATO as the punishment for noncompliance, De Gaulle would reply to the vulgarian from Texas with a haughty, supercilious, sneering, non. Further, it also guaranteed that successive French governments would do their best to sabotage our efforts when, in their view, they could do so without damaging the interests of the West in general. To truly understand French attitudes toward us, we need not to turn off our memory in 1945.

In any case, hatred of the French is really self-hatred. This is not simply because of the Pyrrhic victory they won alongside us in the Revolution, or because of Louis XVI paying to rebuild William and Mary College after that war, or anything like that. It is because the institutions and settlements that France planted on this continent are as important to our history and present as those of the Spanish and British. It is certainly true that, unlike those nationalities, the French in America do not have a country of their own on this continent; rather, we are like an archipelago, scattered over a sea of land. To understand why this is, we have to look at the patterns of French settlement.

One of the problems facing the Kings of France, Spain, and Portugal in the 17th and 18th centuries was that, unlike the British Isles, their countries were very pleasant to live in. This state of affairs — not one that could normally be considered problematic — created difficulties because it made it very hard to find colonists willing to leave the comforts of home for the wilds of America. Of course, intending to convert, rather than annihilate, the natives reduced the numbers necessary to populate what would have been an empty landscape. Moreover, in the case of the French, fur-trading and fishing were more important than massive farming. So apart from the settlers in Acadia (today’s Nova Scotia), the colonizers followed the rivers — south from Quebec on the St. Lawrence, and north from New Orleans on the Mississippi. Although vast in expanse, and bolstered by Indian allies, outside of those two areas the French Empire was made up of widely dispersed small settlements most closely connected by water.

Nevertheless, what was accomplished in those two core areas, New France, and Louisiana, remains amazing. As a partial attempt to solve the population problem, Louis XIV a) settled a regiment of soldiers, the Carignan-Salieres; and b) sent over the Filles du Roy or “Daughters of the King” — also called the “Casket Girls.” These last were orphan girls, raised in royal convents, who were sent over with Crown supplied trousseaux in the eponymous caskets. Arrived in Quebec or New Orleans or Mobile, they were then able to choose their own husbands on arrival. It is due to these ladies that both Canadian French and the now-rarely heard Louisiana Standard French owe their origins to 17th century Standard French, then little-spoken in France outside royal or educated circles. In any case, descent from these two groups is consider a mark of pride among today’s Franco-Americans.

The little hamlets along the rivers connecting the two zones were far from unimportant. Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and Cahokia, Illinois; Ste. Genevieve, St. Louis, and St. Charles, Missouri; Vincennes, Indiana; Detroit and Makinac, Michigan; Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; and many more all owe their origins to the French: in most of these places, descendants — and sometimes even bits of language, folk-custom, and music remain. Without these foundations, the later settlement of the Midwest by Americans of various nationalities would have been much harder.

Off in Acadia, the Acadians were farming and fishing, more or less left to their own devices. In 1713, they were ceded to the British, but in return for promising neutrality were not molested. Nevertheless, the French built the great fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Fearing this engineering marvel so close by, in 1755 the British gave the Acadians a choice: they could swear a new oath of allegiance to the King that would require giving up Catholicism, or they could leave. The vast majority chose the latter course, and the result was the great derangement: Scooped up from their homes, they were dropped off at intervals along the coast of the 13 colonies, where they were subjected to varying amounts of abuse. This horrifying act of course inspired Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, and it remains a reality to the scattered Acadians today, in three countries and two continents (some returned to an island off the French coast, where their descendants reside today).

Due to his horror at the work of his Indian allies at the massacre of Ft. William Henry in 1757, the French Governor Montcalm forbade the scalping and torture of English captives. This led to the defection of most of those allies, which, together with overwhelming superiority in numbers of men and materiel, allowed the British the complete victory that poor generalship and the pusillanimity of colonial militias had denied them for a century and a half. Quebec fell, and in 1763 a treaty gave New France to Britain.

But not Louisiana. In 1763 Louis XV gave that province to his cousin, Charles III of Spain (founder, nine years later, of California). Many of the Acadians found their way there, and in after years settled the hitherto empty bayous and prairies of that region, becoming the famed Cajuns. The pre-existing French population, alongside their Black mixed-blood descendants and relatives, came to be called Creoles, and regarded themselves as aristocratic urbanites, and opposed to their bumpkinish rural countrymen. But the former had the last laugh; precious few New Orleans natives were raised speaking French after 1918, while the language is more or less still around in Cajun country.

France no longer being a threat, in 1764, the British Crown allowed the Acadians who wished to return to Nova Scotia. But their lands had been settled in the meantime by New Englanders (the so-called “neutral Yankees,” who would later sit out the Revolution). So they went to remoter parts of the Province, or to New Brunswick. Pushing up the Madawaska River of the latter place, they established settlements. These were later incorporated into the State of Maine, forming yet another group of American Francophones — quite distinct from the Franco-Americans in the southern part of the State.

Meanwhile, although they had expected to receive similar treatment at the hands of the British as did their Acadian Cousins, the French in Quebec were amazed to find that George III intended to abide by his treaty obligation of “treating his new French and Indian subjects as his own.” The result was the Quebec Act of 1774, which voided the British penal laws in the Province, giving the French their religion and laws; moreover, it expanded Quebec to include the whole of the French settlements of the Old Northwest. On the one hand, this document was furiously denounced by the politicos of the 13 colonies; on the other, it ensured the loyalty of Quebec to the Crown (if not to Anglo-Canadian politicians) until the 1960s.

It also paved the way for the development of a unique French-Canadian culture, a development exacerbated by the French Revolution, which tore the motherland away from the institutions of altar and throne that still held such a strong place in the hearts of French Canada. Very many Canadian paintings of St. Louis from that time bear the face of the martyred Louis XVI. From then until Vatican II, Catholicism would have a very unique place in French Canadian culture, with both the colonizing of the Quebecois hinterland, the Canadian West, and such efforts as the dispatching of young men to fight for Pius IX in 1860-70 seen as part of the “Divine Mission” of the French-Canadian people.

While Quebec rallied to the King during the American Revolution, the southern settlements, under the leadership of Fr. Pierre Gibault, joined the American rebels. After the war was over, however, their lands rapidly filled up with Americans, their rights were trampled upon, and Fr. Gibault bitterly repented of his actions before emigrating to Canada. Nevertheless, French Canadian settlers played prominent parts in opening up sections of Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois (especially around Kanakakee), Nebraska, and Kansas (especially Concordia County). Mostly assimilated today, their descendants nevertheless are invariable proud of their ancestry.

But these Westerners were preceded on the frontier by the Métis, the descendants of French and Scots trappers and their Indian wives. These folk traveled the great rivers as their French forebears had done, eventually reaching the Pacific. Catholic and French-speaking, they developed a culture that bridged the gap between their European and Indian ancestries. Without the aid of Charbonneau his wife, Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark would never have reached the Pacific. Through their help, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened up the Northwest for settlement. Even today, while not nearly so numerous as in Canada, Métis villages can be found in the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Of course, they did rebel twice against the government in Canada, but their disgust with Ottawa was equaled by their reverence for Queen Victoria; it is well known that their leader, Louis Riel, was hanged for treason. It is not so well known that he also led his people against the Fenians.

At any rate, back in the Eastern United States, the French Revolution in France and Haiti sent many refugees, both Black and White, to the seaports of America. New Orleans, still under Spanish rule then, hosted many; a particularly large contingent landed in St. Martinville, where, for a short time, they established a “Petit Paris.” If the manners of that time did not survive, many of the families there still descend from French nobility, and the dialect of la belle langue spoken by both races reminds one of Versailles.

Newport, New York (where Bl. Toussaint arrived), Norfolk, Charleston, and Savannah all received their shares of these latter refugees, and the oldest Catholic churches in the latter three towns still boast their descendants on the parish lists. In the wilds of Pennsylvania, a group of nobility attempted to replicate St. Martinville’s ephemeral success with a settlement called Azylum, Pennsylvania. It was a failure, but many of their surnames survive in nearby Frenchtown. The du Ponts, of course, retain their notoriety in Delaware; a 20th century member of the family paid homage to the land of his ancestors with the Mansion Museum of Nemours.

From 1815 to 1870, France went through five changes of regime. Each of these unleashed a new stream of emigrants, some of whom found their way to our shores. Thus were founded Demopolis, Alabama; Tallahassee, Florida; Besancon, Indiana; Versailles, Ohio; and a number of others. All of these folk made their contributions; here again, the descendants are assimilated (one cringes to hear Versailles pronounced “Ver-sales,” but after all, Vienna in the same state is pronounced “Vy-enna!”). Still, in Antebellum America, French-Americans made an enormous contribution: think of Audubon, Fremont, and Bonneville, to name three examples.

After the Civil War, falling farm prices in Quebec coupled with the rapidly growing factories and mills of New England brought down thousands of French-Canadians, the fathers of the Franco-Americans. A whole network of institutions, churches, societies and the like grew up, and until World War II the community was dedicated to la Survivance — the survival of the Faith, language, and customs of Quebec in the new land. Dedication to this ideal was at the roots of such actions as the Sentinelle affair, of which I have written elsewhere in the pages. But it should be remembered that action for la Survivance was coupled with an intense political loyalty to the United States: a loyalty that saw thousands of Franco-Americans die for their new country in three wars. But the interaction with the mainstream that the last of these brought, coupled with the determination of the Catholic hierarchy after Vatican II to deprive their flock of both French and Latin doomed the experiment. With the death of Wilfrid Beaulieu, fiery editor of the newspaper le Travailleur (Worcester, Mass.) in 1978, the last of the old paladins of Survivance was gone. To be sure, there still remain an ever-dwindling number of Franco-American organizations and even parishes, but there is no long an overarching ideology behind them. Similar occurrences during the Quiet Revolution north of the border simply added to the current of decay down here.

Is all of this assimilation such a bad thing? Is it so bad that the Franco-Americans are vanishing into the melting pot? Well, that depends upon your definition of either half of that hyphenated expression. If to be a Frenchman is to echo the weak decadence, cultural or otherwise, of contemporary Paris and Montreal, it is no loss — especially if to be American is to echo the views of our elites. In that case, it is simply changing one coat of sewage for another.

But what if being French ever regains a scintilla of what it once meant? Perhaps things are changing a bit up north. One hopeful sign is the great popularity among the young of a band called Mes Aieux — “My Ancestors.” The most successful of their tunes is called Degeneration — which has precisely the same meaning in English. To a throbbing, Indianesque drum-beat (guaranteed to have an affect on us Francophones, as I can attest), the lyrics have a biting, sarcastic quality that only French can really provide. Here they are, in a loose translation from the Blogspot “Fides et Ardor”:

Your great-great grandfather cleared the earth
Your great-grandfather laboured on the earth
Your grandfather turned a profit from the earth
Then your father sold the earth to become a bureaucrat

Now you, my little man, you don’t know what to do
In your little 3 room apartment—too expensive and cold in the winter
You want something to call your own
And you dream at night of having your own little piece of earth.

Your great great grandmother, she had 14 kids
Your great grandmother had about as many
Then your grandmother had three, that was enough for her
Your mom didn’t want any, you were an accident

Now you, my little lady, change partners all the time
When you screw up you save yourself by aborting
But there are mornings you awake crying
When you dream in the night of a large table surrounded by little ones.

Your great great grandfather lived through incredible suffering
Your great grandfather collected used, dirty pennies
Then your grandfather became a millionaire
Your father inherited and put it into RRSPs

Now you, my little youth, owe your a$$ to the government
No way to get a loan from a financial institution
To aleviate your desire to hold up a bank
You read books about voluntary simplicity

Your great great grandparents knew how to celebrate
Your great grandparents danced the night away
Your grandparents lived through the Yé-Yé era [Rock and Roll]
Your parents, it was discos, that’s where they met

Now you, my friend, what are you doing with your evening?
Turn off your TV, can’t stay locked inside
Happily, some things in life never change
Put on your best, we’re going out tonight dancing!

If this bespeaks a new wind out of La Belle Province, then perhaps Franco-Americans too will hold up their heads again. In that case, rather than mouthing the usual canards about how awful the French are, it would be well for Anglo-Americans (and all the other varieties) to set about regaining the best elements of their own heritage. If ever all of us actually do that, this will be a country worthy of the loyalty, blood, and treasure her various peoples have lavished upon her. Otherwise, she will have nothing to say. In that event, the France that is so despised over here may not be better than America, but she will assuredly be no worse.

Charles A. Coulombe is a papal knight and freelance writer living in Los Angeles

SIGN UP
Daily updates with TM’s latest


Comments