Tuesday, February 24, 2004

ST.-BRIAC-SUR-MER, France — Sen. John Kerry is not running for president here, but if he were, he would clinch the town’s vote.

Call it partly anti-Bush backlash after months of Iraq-related mudslinging across the Atlantic, but it cannot hurt that the Massachusetts Democrat summered as a child in this picturesque village, hugging Brittany’s rocky shores. Or that Mr. Kerry’s cousin happens to be mayor of St. Briac.

“I know my cousin, and I know he has a clear view of the rest of the world,” said 58-year-old Brice Lalonde. “And sometimes the rest of the world feels a little bit left out, not understood by the United States.”

“I must say too,” added Mr. Lalonde, a former French environment minister and one-time presidential candidate, “his environmental policies are much better than Mr. George Bush’s.”

There are no pro-Kerry rallies or presidential stump speeches in this village of 2,000 year-round residents, which quintuples in size during the summer. The few Kerry-for-president stickers are stashed at St. Briac’s tiny town hall. But in this 16th-century village of thick stone cottages and budding apple trees, residents such as Stephanie Lagand quietly are rooting.

“Honestly, I don’t like Bush’s politics,” said the 29-year-old newspaper-shop owner, who moved to St. Briac three years ago. “Mr. Kerry seems quite nice. And he’s got this French background.”

The son of a U.S. diplomat, French-speaking Mr. Kerry spent part of his childhood in Europe, attending boarding school in Switzerland and spending holidays here, biking and fishing with a flock of cousins. But until recently, his Gallic connections were a buried footnote in his political biography.

With icy relations between France and the United States only beginning to thaw, Mr. Lalonde also plays down the family heritage, appearing fearful that a misplaced remark might dim Mr. Kerry’s presidential ambitions.

During an hourlong interview Friday, he described in clipped English his own past as an antinuclear campaigner, plans to burnish St. Briac’s artistic heritage and his qualified support for the war on Iraq.

But when asked what kind of president Mr. Kerry would make, Mr. Lalonde clammed up.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You must ask him.”

Nor can St. Briac’s longtime residents remember much about the American boy who summered here half a century ago. Most, however, have not forgotten Mr. Kerry’s maternal Forbes grandparents, who settled here in 1908.

The Forbes were a wealthy and worldly couple. Shanghai-born James Grant Forbes was an international lawyer and banker. His wife, Margaret Winthrop, boasted blue-chip lineage stretching back to the first governor of Massachusetts.

The couple raised 11 children, including the mothers of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lalonde. Today, their offspring are scattered across Europe and North America. Only two — Mr. Lalonde and an uncle — remain in St. Briac.

At the La Sagesse retirement home, 95-year-old Pauline Briand remembers well Mr. Kerry’s grandmother, who ate English biscuits, spoke fluent French and walked a pair of corgis daily through the village. During the bleakest months of World War II, she picked up milk at the Briand farm.

“Madame Forbes was very kind,” said the tiny Breton as she finished an afternoon snack at the home, near St. Briac’s town hall. “She was the same age as my mother-in-law, and they would chat. She spoke French very well.”

When Nazi troops occupied St. Briac, they destroyed the Forbes home. Undaunted, Mr. Kerry’s grandfather rebuilt the rambling cliffside estate that later became a hub for far-flung relatives.

Among the young cousins summering there during the 1950s, Mr. Kerry was a natural leader.

“He was older than I, so he was always organizing the games. Kick the can, biking, fishing,” Mr. Lalonde said. “He was tall, really into sports, popular. He was our favorite cousin.”

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lalonde still see each other occasionally in Paris and Washington, swapping family gossip and discussing shared environmental interests. But the U.S. candidate has not returned to St. Briac in 20 years. He skipped a family reunion last summer, at the height of U.S.-French tensions over Iraq.

But as Mr. Kerry continues to dominate Democratic primaries, his long absence has not discouraged the paparazzi. The first French camera crews began trickling into St. Briac a few weeks ago. Then came a sprinkling of foreign reporters.

Bemused, St. Briac’s residents give interviews. They clip the articles and watch themselves on evening news.

“All we’ve been hearing in the French media these days is Kerry, Kerry, Kerry,” said bakery owner Medard Perrois, as he ducked into a cafe one bitter afternoon. “But when the elections are over, St. Briac will return to oblivion.”

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