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

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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