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Romney's turbulent missionary days in France

Latest update : 06/11/2012

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Article text by Jon FROSCH

US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney does not often speak about the two years he spent as a Mormon missionary in France. But available information and insight from those who knew him point to a formative period of his life.

France is known to be somewhat of a punching bag for Republicans in the US, who often cite the country as an emblem of Old World elitism and smug resistance to all things American.

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, however, has a rather deep connection with France: he spent more than two years here as a young Mormon missionary in the 60s, and has referred to the experience as “very enriching”.

But now that Romney is facing off against US President President Barack Obama on a Republican ticket, Romney barely mentions his time in France.

Frequently derided by rivals as a “liberal” in disguise, the candidate has indeed downplayed his ties to a country known for wide-reaching government-funded social programmes and defiant opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.

But information about Romney’s life in France and insight offered by those who knew him then point to a turbulent period that helped shape the man he is today.

Rejection grew Romney's character - and faith

Mormon men are encouraged to begin volunteer missionary work, often in a foreign country, around the age of 19. In line with the tradition, Romney left for France in 1966 after one year at California’s prestigious Stanford University.

Over the course of his 30-month mission abroad, Romney’s duties consisted mainly of going from door to door in Paris, the southwestern city of Bordeaux, and the northwestern port town of Le Havre, recruiting potential French converts to Mormonism – a religion that was then largely unknown in predominantly-Catholic France.

Romney watched many of those doors close in his face. “Most of what I was trying to do was rejected,” Romney has said of his work in France. According to various accounts, Romney’s attempts to get the French interested in Mormonism by inviting them to American cultural and sporting events were often met with indifference – and sometimes by hostile rants against US racism and the Vietnam War.

Romney reportedly only successfully converted two people during his stay in France.

Still, the mission was a character-building experience, said Dr. Dane McBride, a Virginia doctor who was a Mormon volunteer with Romney in France and still counts the politician as one of his close friends.

Romney dealt with unreceptive French people “good-naturedly”, McBride told FRANCE 24, adding: “I’ve never known a harder worker than he.”

McBride says Romney’s time in France taught him “a great deal of humility” in his dealings with others. “As he heard life viewpoints from a huge variety of people, he really learned to listen,” McBride told FRANCE 24.

Even if most of Romney’s efforts to convert the French to Mormonism were fruitless, he has said that the mission in France cemented his own previously shaky religious convictions. “On a mission, your faith in Jesus Christ either evaporates or it becomes much deeper. For me it became much deeper,” Romney confided to The New York Times in 2007, in one of the more candid statements he has made about his religion – a subject he largely avoids in public.

Out of chaos, a deepening conservatism

Another topic Romney rarely addresses is the automobile accident that occurred during his French mission – in which he was at the wheel.

Romney was driving in southern France in 1968 when a drunken priest crashed into his car, injuring the young Romney and killing passenger Leola Anderson, the wife of the US Mormon mission leader in France. That leader soon left the country and Romney was named co-president of the mission – only to find himself faced with a gravely demoralised group of Mormon volunteers.

“There was the auto accident, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King back home. It looked like the world was falling apart, and the missionaries’ spirits were low,” McBride recalled. “But Mitt lifted their spirits. He displayed tremendous leadership.”

Adding to the sense of tumult that summer was the social revolution that had started sweeping through France in May 1968. As students set cars on fire, occupied buildings, and clashed with police, and strikes brought services to a halt, Romney had a front-row seat to French history in the making.

Though the Mormon missionaries from America did not fully understand the broader context in which that explosive situation unfolded, McBride told FRANCE 24 that these events only deepened Romney’s conservatism.

“We were much more into orderliness,” McBride explained. “There were all sorts of problems that came with the societal breakdown: no mail delivery, strikes everywhere, violence at times. He was not cheering it on.”

The 1968 protests specifically impacted Romney’s developing economic and political ideologies – namely, the full-throated defence of free-market capitalism that is one of his trademarks as a prominent Republican. “Mitt sometimes speaks derogatorily of Europe’s economic system, saying that if it doesn’t work in Europe, it’s not going to work in America,” McBride noted. “We witnessed that there. Seeing all that unfold in France steered him away from the Socialist-Democratic style of government.”

Romney the 'tremendous Francophile' 

Despite that, McBride told FRANCE 24, Romney was “a tremendous Francophile”, with a great appreciation for the country's history, literature, art, and cuisine.

Another person who remembers Romney as an enthusiastic Francophile – who “spoke French quite well” – is Nicole Bacharan, an oft-cited specialist in French-American relations and national fellow at Stanford’s public policy think tank, the Hoover Institution. Bacharan, who is French-American herself, was only a child when her parents had Romney over to their home in France several times.

But the American missionary made a vivid impression – and one that differs dramatically from his present-day image as a rather stiff, stuffy politician. “He was a very charming man in the eyes of a little girl. He was fun, spontaneous, full of energy and charisma, which explains why people flocked to him,” Bacharan said. “People already talked about him as someone who would be president of the US.”

Bacharan says she has been disappointed by what she has seen since. “Now he seems plastic,” she said. “He doesn’t seem to know who he is. There’s something not authentic about him.”

Though Romney is on record, as a contender for his party’s presidential nod in 2007, saying “I love France…. I have nothing but respect for the French people”, he also added that he did not want “to become the France of the 21st century”.

Romney the French-basher

Bacharan has noticed that Romney has had mostly disparaging words for France and Europe since first setting his sights on the White House about five years ago. In January, he accused Obama of trying to turn America into “a European-style social welfare state”, and has also mocked the old-fashioned French toilets he encountered when in France.

Strategically, it is obvious why Romney would try to distance himself from France. During the Republican primaries in early 2012, rival Newt Gingrich released an online attack ad (entitled “The French Connection”) that ridiculed Romney for speaking French – just as Republicans did to Democrat John Kerry, a notorious Francophile, in 2004.

As someone who’s written widely on US politics, Bacharan says she understands that “for a conservative to trash France goes without saying during the campaign”. But, she concluded, striking a wistful note: “To see Romney act like France is the country you don’t want to have anything to do with, that’s hard to take. Because he’s been to France, and he knows better.”