- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Saturday night about 1,000 people stormed the French Embassy for Bastille Day 2000. The mother of the District of Columbia's mayor, who witnessed the event, found no cause for alarm: The charity event saw more bebopping than beheading.

"I was impressed," said Virginia Hayes Williams, attending the event for her son, Mayor Anthony Williams. "There were so many young people dancing and just visiting with us old people.

"I had one young person bringing me the goodies from all the tables," Mrs. Williams added with a rolling laugh. It was good to have someone doing that."

Bastille Day 2000 held Saturday even though the actual day falls this coming Friday, July 14 raised money for Le Comite Tricolore, or the Tricolore Committee. The "goodies" were dishes from 12 Washington-area French restaurants, for which participants paid a one-time charge of between $25 and $40.

Bastille Day marks July 14, 1789, when a mob of French citizens stormed the state-run Bastille prison in Paris.

Only seven inmates were inside, none of whom was a political prisoner. The jail itself was actually similar to a white-collar, country-club correctional facility: Thirza Vallois, author of "Around and About Paris," writes that prisoners brought in their own furniture, servants and even amorous partners.

Yet the event symbolized an end to monarchy, paving the way for the French Revolution and the first French Republic.

"Bastille Day still means a lot to people," says French Consul General Alain de Keghel. "They realize it was the starting point of democracy in France. It was some years after the American Revolution, and I strongly feel that public opinion in the U.S. still has sharp interest for Bastille Day," likening it to America's Independence Day.

If you step into George Washington's home in Mount Vernon on the wall, encased in glass, is the rusted key to the Bastille, given by Marquis de Lafayette, Washington's celebrated French aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, to his old boss. Tomorrow night, Mount Vernon and the Hay-Adams Hotel are holding a two-day Bastille Day event that includes a private, evening tour of the mansion including a look at the famous key.

French-American ties go back far: The French battled the British over American territory before the Declaration of Independence. They helped the Colonies free themselves from jolly old England. The upstart country sent ambassadors such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to France to whet Frenchmen's revolutionary taste buds.

Washington, less of a Francophile than Jefferson, begged the American people to avoid entangling foreign alliances in his 1796 farewell address to the country. But Americans and French have been entangling alliances on the world stage ever since.

The French stayed out of the Civil War, refusing to side with the Confederacy though maintaining trade. America led the Allied liberation of France during World War II. And, of course, the United States stepped into Vietnam after the French pulled out.

Mr. de Keghel admits there was French-American antipathy for "some years during the Vietnam War, but it's something which is almost over now because globalization changes the world very fast," he says. "There's a lot of mutual understanding now."

Yet the celebration of Bastille Day 2000 (and French-American relations in general) is not just about politics, even though it's based in the highly charged nation's capital.

"We do this so people can come together," says Victor Obadia, president of the committee, and a U.S. citizen since 1969 but a native of France. "Some see only trade disputes between the countries. But we've helped you guys with your revolution and you helped us with ours."

The nonprofit committee, founded in 1992, is made up of 32 French-related organizations in the District who meet monthly to share concerns. Its main social concern is the Comite Tricolore Assistance Fund, which helps needy French or French-American people in this area on a case-by-case basis.

A social worker contracted by the committee will find cases of need, and then the Tricolore group will screen applicants. Beneficiaries include "older people having lost their Social Security coverage, Medicaid for example; or French widows of American citizens who don't have access to American protection systems," Mr. de Keghel says.

Mr. Obadia says the Tricolore Committee has purchased wheelchairs, eyeglasses, dental services and even tickets to France. Of the approximately 25,000 in the local French community, the committee can only help about three dozen cases a year.

"The work is all volunteer, and the event raises between $10,000 and $13,000," says Mr. Obadia. "But it goes fast."

Next year, Mr. de Keghel says the committee is thinking of turning the Bastille Day event into a festival on Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet too much visibility puts the Tricolore Committee in an awkward position.

"We don't try to make too much publicity because we don't have a huge amount of money," Mr. de Keghel says. "What we try is to get people who are in contact with people in need."

The 12 restaurants that participated Saturday night were La Colline, La Bergerie, Le Tarbouche, Al Tiramisu, Bistrot du Coin, Bistrot Lepio, Cafe Ole, Mediterranee, Equinox, Teatro Goldoni, Marcel's and La Fourchette. All are members of Amicale Culinaire, a consortium of D.C.-area French restaurants. They also held a gala in February for the Tricolore Committee. Saturday night, Yann Henrotte, president of Amicale Culinaire, also handed over $1,500 that the restaurateurs raised during the February gala.

"It's good to see all of these French people working together," Mr. Henrotte says.

Esprit de corps was everywhere. The Northern Virginia-based theater company, Le Neon, presented scenes from "Cyrano de Bergerac." Simone Marchant crooned tunes for the audience. Mr. de Keghel was also talking up the District's sister-city partnership with Paris.

"It means a lot," says Mr. de Keghel, who traveled to Paris in March with Mayor Williams to sign the agreement. "That means both capital cities are ready to cooperate and improve exchanges."

That's how the mayor's mother got into the act. She was ecstatic about coming out to Bastille 2000 just to see so many people from "different races, cultures and creeds" come together.

Mrs. Williams wants the city to build an international center to build up the District's international personality, a neglected aspect of the city despite its myriad foreign embassies and cultural organizations.

"If we can reach out to get to know each other, life will be a little better and we could have peace in our time," she adds loftily. "Who knows? We need this for our children."

For information on Comite Tricolore, contact them at Box 40166, Washington, D.C. 20016.

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