Mitt Romney's dirty secret - he speaks French!
The frontrunner to become the US Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has been coming under fire from his opponents for not being conservative enough. What's worse, the former governor of Massachusetts also speaks French, which turns out to be a liability in American politics.
“Bonjour, je m'appelle Mitt Romney,” starts a video made by the candidate when he was organizing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The video has been used in political attack ads against him by opponents from both the left and the right.
One produced by AmericanLP, a Democratic support group, uses the video of Romney speaking in fluent French about volunteering for the Olympic Games and adds the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, in the background.
What appear to be subtitles are actually quotations of Romney's not-so-conservative statements in the past.
“It’s about the flip-flopping of Mitt Romney,” explained Soufian Alsabbagh, a French student of politics and international relations who recently published L'Amérique de Mitt Romney, a biography of the candidate in French.
Romney's current closest rival, Newt Gingritch, released an attack ad in early January comparing Romney to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democrats candidate in 2004. He, too, was attacked for speaking French.
“Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney, he'll say anything to win. Anything,” the narrator of the video says. “And just like John Kerry … he speaks French too.”
Alsabbagh says that reminding people that a candidate speaks French is a way to highlight class differences. Romney is a millionaire, having made his fortune in business before entering politics.
“It’s a good way to say ‘careful this man is a millionaire and not concerned about American people and the lower class’,” he says. “It’s a good way to try to tear him down.”
When he was writing his biography of Romney last year, Alasbagh says he was unable to get access to the campaign.
“I tried. But they are very busy and not open to questions, especially not from France, because it could be dangerous for the Romney candidacy,” he said.
Gingrich, as it turns out, admits he spoke French “a long time ago”, as he lived in France as a teenager when his father was in the army, stationed near Orléans.
But why does Romney speak French?
He is a Mormon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends young men abroad for two years to preach their religion. Romney spent two and a half years in France in the 1960s as a missionary, arriving here in July 1966.
“He had to go from door to door and speak about his faith, which was quite hard, because the Mormon religion was not well known, and there was a lot of prejudice,” says Alsabaggh.
Indeed, Josianne Lazeras, a member of the church, says Mormonism was virtually unknown in France at the time. She was 18 years old when Romney spent a few months at her parish in Nogent-sur-Marne, east of Paris, in 1968.
“I remember someone who was very open, very pleasant, who laughed easily,” she recalls. “Missionaries come regularly to France and it’s not easy at first, not speaking French. Some are quite shy. But I always saw Romney as someone who was relaxed and reaching out to others.”
By the time Lazeras met him, Romney had already been in France for over a year, and had already learnt the language.
“There was no language barrier. And he was interested in everything! I remember that he had a little notebook, and when he heard a word he didn't know, he wrote it down. He was very open to everything, to the language, the culture, to people,” she says.
At the time, Romney’s father was the governor of the state of Michigan, something that Lazeras says she did not know until she started planning a trip to the US, with a 99-dollar Greyhound bus ticket valid for 99 days.
Romney suggested that she stay with his family, so she and three friends ended up spending four days at the governor's mansion in Michigan, an opportunity she did not appreciate until later.
“We were young, so we didn't realise the luck we had! It was only later that we realised that we were at the governor's mansion!” she recalls.
Lazeras says she is not very interested in politics but she could imagine Romney being a good president because he has held on to his Mormon faith.
“It is not easy to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in today's world. And it's not easy to be in politics and stay loyal to your beliefs,” she said.
Indeed, Romney has been accused by some evangelicals in the US of not being Christian.
But here in France, Soufian Alsabbagh says that his religion is not so much an issue and that Romney could be popular, despite his political ideas, because of his language abilities.
“Barack Obama is very popular with the French public, but Romney could be as well, even if he’s a big conservative and his ideas don’t really stick in France,” he said.
“When Obama says two words in French that he learned five minutes earlier, people here get all fired up,” he said. “If you get [Romney], fluent in French, who starts to speak French, it could be very interesting for us.”