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French Town Quietly Cheers On a Son: Kerry

Residents of the village where the Democrat's grandfather settled hope the candidate, if elected, will improve transatlantic ties.

August 14, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

ST.-BRIAC-SUR-MER, France — Imagine the scene here a year from now if this genteel village enters U.S. history.

On Aug. 15, 2005, President John F. Kerry returns with great fanfare to St.-Briac-sur-Mer, where his parents met and where he spent childhood vacations in a Breton coastal landscape immortalized by Renoir.

Escorted by his cousin, Mayor Brice Lalonde -- a former candidate for the French presidency -- Kerry leads the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the Allied liberation of the village from the Nazis.

Speaking fluent French, Kerry greets crowds filling narrow lanes and a town plaza festooned with flags of both nations. Kerry announces that he has chosen this community of 2,000, a cherished refuge of his globe-trotting family since 1923, to symbolize the rapprochement of the United States and France -- indeed, Europe -- after years of transatlantic tension.

With less than three months to go before the election, relatives and friends of the family who remember Kerry from periodic youthful visits are rooting for him.

"I was so very, very happy when he succeeded in becoming the candidate," said Christiane Menard, whose parents worked for the Democratic senator's maternal family in its bluff-top mansion with a spectacular view of rocky beaches. "Johnny was a great kid. He has a lot of determination."

Of course, there are several obstacles to any presidential visit next year. For one thing, Kerry has to get elected. For another, his family doesn't seem enthusiastic about mentioning, let alone celebrating, St. Briac's existence right now.

"We have been asked by the family to play down the French connection," Kerry's uncle Ian Forbes said when reached last week by telephone at Les Essarts, as the family mansion is known. Forbes said he last saw Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, during a weekend visit here about four years ago.

With U.S.-French relations soured by the Iraq war, an association with France could be a political liability for Kerry. Some Republican leaders sneer at the candidate because he speaks French and has French relatives. On Thursday, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) accused Kerry of looking and acting "French," and claimed that he supported socialism.

Asked about that situation, Forbes said: "What can I do? It's very, very sad indeed."

The French-bashing against Kerry smacks of bigotry and is a sad indicator of the U.S. political climate, asserts Zachary Miller of Paris, vice chairman of Democrats Abroad, a group of politically active U.S. expatriates. Miller said he has worked with Kerry's sister Diana, a longtime teacher in overseas schools, on the senator's campaign.

"That John Kerry has traveled outside the United States, that he speaks other languages, all those are good things," Miller said. "The criticism, it's all part of the dumbing-down of America. I think it appeals only to a small part of the Republican base. I don't think most Republicans feel that way."

Kerry's paternal ancestors were Czech Jews who converted to Catholicism. On his mother's side, the Forbes clan was one of the founding families of New England and traces its roots to Britain.

But 81 years ago, Kerry's maternal grandfather, an international financier named James Grant Forbes, was drawn to this region of France. Brittany's north coast has a wild, rain-swept beauty and, like Ireland and Scotland, a strong Celtic influence. The summer sun gives way suddenly to fog that engulfs the green hills and the stone houses with peaked roofs, spiked towers and wood facades of maroon and brown.

The Forbes estate became a local institution. James Forbes and his wife, Margaret Winthrop -- a descendant of the first governor of Massachusetts -- employed people from St. Briac to keep the vast grounds, tend the stables and cars, and help a family that grew to 11 children.

"I remember Madame Forbes: I would see her walking her dogs, two boxers, all the time," said Rene Desriac, 74, who owned a grocery and a clothing store in the cozy downtown for decades. "She was tall, imposing, elegant. John Kerry looks a lot like her side of the family."

The Forbeses were scattered in Boston, Britain and elsewhere, but they spent summers in St. Briac. As a result, Kerry's parents -- Rosemary Forbes and Richard Kerry -- met and fell in love here in the late 1930s, family members and acquaintances said. Richard Kerry had come to study art in a place whose powerful colors and moody light had long captivated painters.

The couple returned to the United States, and John Kerry was born in Colorado in 1943. By then, the family mansion in France had been taken over by Nazi occupiers and turned into the local German military headquarters. The Nazis burned the place down during the Allied liberation in 1944. Kerry has described seeing his mother weep as they visited the ruins of Les Essarts.

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