Kerry's French connection


Village: Residents of the presidential hopeful's boyhood summer getaway in Brittany quietly hope for a Kerry win. Among them are his cousin -- the mayor.

April 12, 2004|By Elizabeth Bryant | Elizabeth Bryant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAINT-BRIAC SUR MER, France -- Sen. John Kerry is not running for president here, but if he were, he would be a cinch to win 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 sent summers as a child in this picturesque village hugging Brittany's rocky shores. Or that Kerry's cousin happens to be mayor of Saint-Briac.

"I know my cousin, and I know he has a clear view of the rest of the world," says 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," adds 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 Saint-Briac's tiny town hall. But in this 16th-century village of thick stone cottages and apple trees, residents such as Stephanie Lagand are quietly rooting.

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

Son of a U.S. diplomat, French-speaking 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 only beginning to thaw between France and the United States, Lalonde plays down the family heritage, appearing fearful that a misplaced remark might dim his cousin's presidential ambitions.

During an hourlong interview, he describes in clipped English his past as an anti-nuclear campaigner, plans to burnish Saint-Briac's artistic heritage and his qualified support for the war in Iraq.

But when asked what kind of president Kerry would make, Lalonde quickly clams up. "I don't know," he says. "You must ask him."

Nor can Saint-Briac's longtime residents remember much about the American boy who vacationed here half a century ago. Most, however, have not forgotten Kerry's maternal Forbes grandparents, who settled here in the 1920s.

Unconnected to the American publishing family, the Forbes were nonetheless 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 to the first governor of Massachusetts.

The couple raised 11 children, including the mothers of Kerry and Lalonde.

Today, their offspring are scattered across Europe and North America. Only two -- Lalonde and an uncle -- remain in Saint-Briac.

The family's far-flung roots have sparked Kerry fever in strange places. At Kerry's old boarding school near Zug, Switzerland, administrators field steady calls from reporters about their famous alumnus, whose student folder is now peppered with newspaper clippings.

In the mountain Czech town of Horni Benesov, where Kerry's paternal grandfather was born in 1873, Mayor Josef Klech wants to make the Massachusetts senator an honorary citizen. (Kerry's grandfather was Fritz Kohn, a Jew and brewery worker who changed his name to Frederick A. Kerry in 1902 and immigrated to the United States.)

And at La Sagesse retirement home in Saint-Briac, 95-year-old Pauline Briand remembers well 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," says Briand as she finishes an afternoon snack at the home, near Saint-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 Saint-Briac, they destroyed the Forbes' home.

Undaunted, 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, Kerry was a natural leader, Lalonde says. "He was older than I, so he was always organizing the games: kick the can, biking, fishing," Lalonde says. "He was tall, really into sports, popular. He was our favorite cousin."

Kerry is hardly Saint-Briac's only claim to fame. Pont-Aven artists such as Emile Bernard lived here. So did an exiled Romanov grand duke, who grandly proclaimed himself czar. Then there is Lalonde, who looks nothing like his American cousin.

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