To the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” played on a fife, the new French ambassador stood on the grand staircase of his Tudor-styled mansion and proclaimed a new era in France‘s relations with the United States.
Ambassador Pierre Vimont chose to commemorate the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette in his debut diplomatic reception in Washington.
“Lafayette was an extraordinary man,” the ambassador said of the French nobleman who was only 19 years old when he met Gen. George Washington in 1777 and soon became one of Washington’s closest military aides during the American Revolution.
The first Continental Congress placed great hopes in Lafayette because of his deep connections in the court of Louis XVI, who later agreed to provide financial aid to the Americans and supply troops and naval forces that helped secure victory at Yorktown.
Mr. Vimont, a career diplomat, arrived in Washington two weeks ago, representing the new pro-American President Nicolas Sarkozy. The mood at the White House and on Capitol Hill had already changed from the irritation over the previous French government’s attempts to undermine U.S. policy, especially in Iraq.
“Freedom fries are no more,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, who attended the reception last week. He was referring to the renaming of french fries at the House cafeteria.
Mr. Vimont noted that Lafayette helped establish a “deep and warm friendship” between France and the young United States.
“He regarded Washington as his adopted father,” the ambassador said.
Despite its “ups and downs,” the U.S.-French relationship remains strong and the two countries are “the best allies in the fight against terrorism,” Mr. Vimont added.
He mentioned the liberation of France in World War II, saying that the French have “profound gratitude toward our American friends.”
“One of the lessons of our history is that from Yorktown to the beaches of Normandy — just as is the case today in Afghanistan and the Balkans — France and the United States have stood shoulder to shoulder to defend and promote the values of freedom and democracy that we gave the world,” the ambassador said.
Mr. Vimont thanked Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, for introducing a resolution conferring honorary citizenship on Lafayette, who is also honored in Washington with a statue and a park bearing his name across from the White House.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional French Caucus, said only two portraits hang in the House chamber, one of Washington and one of Lafayette.
“That is the place France holds in the House of Representatives,” he said.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, commander of the National Guard, related Lafayette’s role in inspiring the various state militias to change their name. Lafayette was impressed by the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution, who, unlike their European counterparts, fought for the cause of liberty instead of the cause of kings.
Lafayette returned to France after the Revolution and formed the Paris National Guard. In 1825, he visited New York and reviewed the state militia, which honored him by changing its name to the National Guard. Other states soon followed New York’s example.
The reception included members of the French Senate, who insisted that French politicians admire Americans.
“Our duty is to keep the relationship strong,” said French Sen. Jean-Guy Branger, a member of the American caucus. “Long live the United States. Long live France.”
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