PARIS — In 1803, Napoleon sold the vast French territory of Louisiane and its urban jewel, la Nouvelle-Orleans, to an eager United States so he could focus on conquering Europe.
Two centuries later, many Frenchmen are remembering the historic connection to the former colony as they lend a helping hand to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The French government shipped in food and supplies. The city of Orleans is raising funds for its American namesake. Parisians, whose passion for jazz is legendary, are also reaching out.
“If it hadn’t been New Orleans, I think I can say this honestly … there would not have been such a mobilization,” Orleans Mayor Serge Grouard said. “We have a special link. … It’s symbolic and sentimental.”
While many countries have contributed aid, France’s support for its longtime ally takes on extra significance at a time when the nations have been working to restore ties frayed over French opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
At the grass-roots level, well-wishers have offered lodging, student loans, money and sympathy — often motivated by France’s long-overlooked link to “La Nouvelle-Orleans,” founded in 1718 by French settlers who named it for the Duke of Orleans, then the regent of France.
Today, New Orleans mostly means jazz to the French. Louisiana, however, conjures up images of plantations and crinoline antebellum dresses, even if French surnames like Breaux and Hebert remain common.
True, few French people would understand the English-infected New Orleans motto “Laissez les bons temps rouler” — translated directly from “Let the good times roll,” an idiom that, in French, does not quite work.
Yet French pride and language linger among some Cajuns of south-central Louisiana. Their ancestors, so-called Acadians, started migrating from Canada 250 years ago during the French and Indian War.
“We have cousins in Louisiana who, even if they don’t speak our language, carry our names and look into their genealogy here in France,” said Claude Teboul, president of France Louisiana Franco-Americanie, a Paris-based cross-cultural organization.
In response to Katrina, his group set aside conferences and exhibits to raise money for aid, collecting at least $30,000 in the last week, according to its Web site.
In the city of Orleans, about 70 miles south of Paris, officials are organizing benefit concerts — one featuring jazz — and planning to donate half the receipts from sports events to Katrina relief, the mayor said. The city also hopes to take in 50 students from the University of New Orleans.
While French ill-feelings over Iraq have mostly subsided, a bitter aftertaste lingers — evidenced by the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur: A cartoon shows President Bush shouting “Of course. It was a city built by the French,” while holding a newspaper referring to a submerged New Orleans.
“For many French who consider the United States as the dominant power, rich, etc., it’s an eye-opener to see the poverty in Louisiana,” said Michel Garcin, who heads the Paris branch of the French-American Foundation.