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Learning to Dance With the French

by C.E. Richard on Jul 13, 2003

During their recent meeting in the French lakeside town of Evian, Presidents George Bush and Jacques Chirac of France offered the begrudging little gestures of bonhomie that were expected of them. Nonetheless, with ugly anti-American protests in Paris and perfectly good French wine poured down the gutter in Peoria, this year we’re finally at liberty to admit the hard, historical truth: Americans and French people can find each other really annoying.

Bush and Chirac are scheduled to meet again this December at a long-planned gala in New Orleans celebrating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. They’re supposed to reenact the signing of the final treaties ceding the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Although there’s been no official cancellation of the event, nobody I know here in Louisiana is rushing to rent a tux.

Now, despite the recent spat, few believe there’s any real ill will between France and the United States. They’ve enjoyed a staunch alliance for more than two hundred years and doubtless will for another two hundred. Rather, it’s more like the little exasperations voiced by a quarrelsome old couple, married more years than either likes to remember. They just get on each other’s nerves.

And they always have. Two centuries ago, the Americans and French living in New Orleans each discovered just how irritating the other could be. Today, with some 250,000 people still speaking the native French language, Louisiana is a curious fusion of the two cultures. Of course, French Louisianians like myself no longer have much in common with our cousins in Paris.

But in 1803, following the Purchase, the native population of New Orleans felt as though they had just been snatched from the cradle of the mother country. “A few of the French officers and citizens are mortified at the loss of this delightful country [Louisiana] and seem to foster a great hatred toward the Americans,” wrote William C.C. Claiborne, the federal official appointed by Thomas Jefferson to claim the territory. “It requires much address and prudence to preserve the harmony of the city.”

About a month after the Stars and Stripes were raised over New Orleans, the local militia was called to a ballroom on the report that some kind of trouble had erupted there. What they found was a good old-fashioned drunken brawl between the city’s leading French and American citizens. As well-dressed officers and gentlemen wrestled on the floor, a handful of Americans stood on one side, noisily singing “Hail Columbia,” while on the other the French fired back with a rousing rendition of “Allons, enfants de la Patrie.” And all because they couldn’t agree whether to dance in the French style or the American.

The derision they leveled against each other in 1803 sounds not unlike what we’ve heard this year. To the Americans, Louisiana’s native French, called “Creoles,” seemed conceited, impractical and effete. Settlers moving into the territory argued that the Creoles would never make good Americans. They were too licentious and corrupt, they claimed; too interested in fancy foods, drinking and gambling ever to govern themselves, too fanatically devoted to leisure to build sound businesses.

Meanwhile, to the Creoles, the Americans appeared crude, reckless and dangerously ambitious. To put it another way, they looked upon Americans in much the same way that the French presently regard certain Texans.

The one trait Creoles shared with Americans was an unassailable stubbornness. Even Governor Claiborne, normally a reserved, tightly buttoned gentleman, found Louisiana’s French infuriating. “To bring these folks to their senses,” he wrote, “we’ll have to aim cannons at them and knock down the walls of the city from top to bottom!”

As flummoxed as he was by the French Creoles, Claiborne managed to keep his cannons quiet and leave the city walls standing. He knew he’d have to meet them halfway. So, with prudent humility, the governor learned to loosen his collar a little, to compromise, to speak French, and to practice crafty politics, Louisiana-style. He worked hard to court the favor of his skeptical citizenry. Meanwhile, he also worked to court a Creole bride.

Eventually, Claiborne won the hearts of both. He married into the prominent New Orleans family of Clarisse Duralde and went on to become the first democratically chosen leader of Louisiana. Claiborne’s election — and his marriage — foretold the eventual union of American and French cultures here after the Purchase. Louisiana evolved a peculiar identity, no longer the offspring of old Europe, yet never conventionally American either. It’s a good reminder that the best marriages are based on a certain deference and flexibility.

The French and the Americans undoubtedly will remain closely wed, no matter how irritating the old couple may find each other at times. Nevertheless, Presidents Bush and Chirac could do much to restore confidence in that relationship by putting aside their pride and coming to the big anniversary in New Orleans later this year, by sitting at Claiborne’s table where the Purchase was finalized and renewing their vows.


C.E. Richard wrote the six-hour documentary series "Louisiana: A History," to be shown on public television this fall. He is a writer for the History News Service.