When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

eyes on the U.S.

Mitt Romney, The French Years

From 1966-1968, Romney spread “the word of Jesus,” door-to-door from Bordeaux to Paris, as a Mormon missionary. It was a tumultuous period, both politically and personally for young Mitt. Indeed, some say his French tribulations are the source of his ambi

Romney (left) with other Mormon missionaries in 1968 in Limoges, France (Michael Bush)
Romney (left) with other Mormon missionaries in 1968 in Limoges, France (Michael Bush)
Philippe Bernard

PARIS - It was a small country road winding through the Bordeaux region, a tight curve entering the small village of Bernos-Beaulac, just before the local post office. On June 16, 1968, this typically French scenery almost ended Mitt Romney's would-be career – and young life – before it had even yet begun.

A Mercedes was speeding in the opposite direction and missed the turn, hitting Romney's car head-on. The Mormon missionary was 21 years old at the time, and "the son of the Governor of Michigan," wrote the local newspaper Sud Ouest at the time.

The first policeman on the scene wrote "He's dead" on Romney's passport. It turned out Romney survived the accident with a swollen face and broken arm. But Leola Anderson -- the wife of the President of the Mormon Mission to France Duane Anderson, who was himself seriously hurt in the crash -- died.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints chartered a special train to bring back its leader and Romney to Paris four days later. "In a rare move at the Saint-Jean station, (…) two ambulances were allowed to park on the platform in order to move the wounded onto the Paris-bound train," wrote Sud Ouest daily. "I was frightened of driving a car," said Mitt Romney to the Boston Globe in 2007. "I had a sense of vulnerability I had not experienced before."

"The Church never sued the other driver. It's not something they do," says Suzanne Farel, 87, a French Mormon who was riding in the back of Romney's car when the accident occurred. Others say the Mormons didn't press charges to prevent a religious conflict. The driver of the Mercedes, Albert Marie, was a Catholic priest.

More than 40 years later, André and Paulette Salarnier, French Mormons who often cooked "coq au vin" and mushroom-stuffed crepes for the young Romney, say they received several emails from the candidate's entourage asking them to no longer speak to reporters about the 1968 accident.

They just remember "an open and charming young man speaking French almost without an accent." André Salarnier also makes sure to prevent any backlash regarding his famous "coq au vin," a dish that could be forbidden to water-drinking Mormons and shatter Romney's image as a pious Mormon: "The wine being cooked, it no longer contains alcohol." A way to stop anyone from thinking that "Young Mitt" may have been corrupted by the French and their famous Bordeaux vintages.

These days in the United States, links to France, a symbol of social uprising and something un-American, are suspect for some voters. And with Romney forced to fend off attacks by rival Republican candidates of being a liberal-in-conservative-clothes, his two years in France are perfect ammunition for his opponents.

There is a 2002 video that is now circulating on the Internet of Romney, then the head of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic, using French to call on volunteers to help out with the Games. Instead of translating his words, the negative ad falsely subtitles Romney's words, making it seem as if he was speaking in support of abortion and illegal immigrants, with a little Marseillaise music playing in the background.

In another ad entitled "The French connection," supported by Newt Gingrich, an accordion plays in the background and the clip ends with this line: "And like John Kerry he speaks French too!"

French politics

The car accident in Bernos-Beaulac wasn't the only formative event of Romney's time in France. The leading Republican presidential hopeful, who spent up to 10 hours a day knocking on doors to spread the "word of Jesus," lived through one of France's most tumultuous times: the May 1968 student uprising.

"We didn't believe it. We thought: ‘My God, people have gone crazy!"" recalled Dane McBride, a 65-year-old American doctor who worked with Romney at the time. "The spread of anarchy troubled us. We didn't look at this social uprising with sympathy. It was the opposite of the values of order and civility that we were preaching."

Mitt Romney expressed his take on those events in 2007: "My experience in France gave me a great appreciation of the value of liberty and the value of the free-enterprise system. I came home with the feeling that these things are not ubiquitous, that what we enjoy in the US is actually quite unique, and therefore is fragile.""

It was in France that Romney heard of the July 1967 Detroit riots (his governor father ordered the crackdown), and the murder of Robert Kennedy in June 1968.

Romney, who was preaching for a Church that at the time refused to ordain Blacks, also found out about Martin Luther King's murder while living in France. "We wanted our Church to evolve. But when the French refused to open their door, accusing Americans of racism, we replied: ‘What are you doing with Arabs?" says McBride.

According to his fellow missionaries, Romney learned a lot about politics, and displayed leadership qualities during his French mission. "Every time there was a problem, he felt he had to resolve it," says Michael Bush, another missionary, who remembers Romney's trips to Spanish banks to get the money sent by the missionaries' parents and blocked in France by a nationwide general strike.

In the summer of 1968, after the car crash, Romney replaced Duane Anderson, the mission President who went back to the US to bury his wife. "The missionaries weren't in good spirits. Conversions were stuck at 80, half the goal set for 1968. So Mitt organized a party and announced the goal was raised from 160 to 200. In December, when he left Paris, there had been 203 conversions," says McBride.

News from dad

But the news that Romney received during his mission that most resonates today may be his father's complete about-face regarding the Vietnam war. In 1967-1968, George Romney, also a Mormon and an absolute model for his son, was in a similar position as Mitt is today: He was running for the GOP nomination against Richard Nixon.

The elder Romney had suddenly lost his frontrunner status after an August 1967 TV interview. He said that during a trip to Vietnam in 1965, he was "brainwashed" by US generals who'd been lying when they said they were in control of the situation. He called for an end to what he saw as a "tragic" war, a stand that was immediately followed by the plunge in the polls.

At the same time, his son was preaching for a Church that considered the fight against Communism as a sacred cause. He faced hostility from many French people who were against the American intervention in Vietnam, especially when he went door-to-door in left-leaning neighborhoods.

His father's position unsettled him, according to McBride. "We would be knocking on doors. We would talk to people about Jesus Christ. Some still associated us with France's 1944 liberators. But many would slam their doors screaming: ‘You're crazy! You should go home and tell your leaders to get the hell out of Vietnam now!""

It was a difficult time for a young man used to being sure of himself. "Most of what I was trying to do was rejected," said Romney in 2007, admitting that his father's change of heart pushed him to reconsider his position.

According to recent biographies, it was in this period that Romney decided to have a different approach to his father's: being flexible, adapting his positions to the context. That explains the many policy changes that his rivals criticize him for. Once very open on social issues, he has run a very conservative campaign. To those who call out his close ties with France he responds by trashing the European social model.

Mormonism's sense of modesty, as well as the humiliations experienced during his French years, may also explain the lack of charisma and empathy with ordinary people that critics repeatedly bring up against Romney. One of his door-to-door partners in France, Michael Bush, dismisses these attacks as journalists' inventions, though he confirms them in his own way. "Mitt is a bit uneasy. It's strange that he's running for President without revealing too much of himself. Now, he has to come out and say who he really is."

Bush, who manages a pro-Romney website, prefers to see the candidate's struggles to prove his mettle as the result of lessons he learned in those long days between 1966 and 1968: when door after door was slammed in his face by French miscreants.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Michael Bush

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


Minerals And Violence: A Papal Condemnation Of African Exploitation, Circa 2023

Before heading to South Sudan to continue his highly anticipated trip to Africa, the pontiff was in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he delivered a powerful speech, in a country where 40 million Catholics live.

Minerals And Violence: A Papal Condemnation Of African Exploitation, Circa 2023
Pierre Haski


PARIS — You may know the famous Joseph Stalin quote: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” Pope Francis still has no military divisions to his name, but he uses his voice, and he does so wisely — sometimes speaking up when no one else would dare.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Belgian Congo, a region plundered and martyred, before and after its independence in 1960), Francis has chosen to speak loudly. Congo is a country with 110 million inhabitants, immensely rich in minerals, but populated by poor people and victims of brutal wars.

That land is essential to the planetary ecosystem, and yet for too long, the world has not seen it for its true value.

The words of this 86-year-old pope, who now moves around in a wheelchair, deserve our attention. He undoubtedly said what a billion Africans are thinking: "Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered!"

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest