Fanning the Flames of French-American Friendship

Ever since Lafayette’s contribution to the American Revolutionary War, there has been a firm friendship between our two countries in cultural, economic, and military terms. A monument in homage to the U.S. victims of World War I is currently being built in Washington D.C., and will be inaugurated on Memorial Day in 2024. French-American commissioner Monique Brouillet Seefried is playing a major role in this commemoration, and insists on the importance of philanthropy in the United States.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: You were born French to an illustrious ambassador close to Charles de Gaulle, and yet you have since become American. Why? The French-American relationship seems to be one of your passions. Can you tell us more?

Monique Brouillet Seefried: I became American 40 years ago for my children, who were born in the United States. They were American, and I had to raise them according to the values of this country, which I also had to make my own. However, I did not want to be a foreigner. I wanted to say that I was French by birth and American by choice, which enabled me to express my opinions and work for what I believed in. I devoted myself to education, which led me to my position as president of the board of governors of the International Baccalaureate and to my role, since 2014, as commissioner of the United States World War I Centennial Commission. This latter project will continue until the inauguration of the Washington memorial in 2024.

What are the commemorations, monuments, or events that you see as best symbolizing the French-American relationship?

In terms of monuments, Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty and its multiple reproductions both in France and the United States. This symbol of French-American friendship was a gift from the French to the Americans for the centenary of U.S. independence. Frederick MacMonnies’ Tearful Liberty, given in turn by America to France after World War I, is a statue almost the same size, although it is not nearly as famous. Inaugurated in Meaux, east of Paris, in 1932, it commemorates the resistance of French soldiers during the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, and looks over the Musée de la Grande Guerre, which opened in 2011. These statues are icons of French-American friendship, and were both financed by private fundraising initiatives. Many American schoolchildren even donated money for Tearful Liberty. Meanwhile, the commemorations held for the World War I centenary enabled new generations of U.S. soldiers, who represented units that had fought in France in 1917 and 1918, to learn how grateful France still was to them. Then, of course, there are the annual ceremonies on the Normandy beaches, attended by the remaining veterans who took part in the landings.

It seems easier to commemorate the First World War than the second. Do you agree that there is unanimity for one and ambiguity for the other?

For the French, probably. There was a sense of national unity during the first conflict, while the country was split in two during the second. For the Americans, although far more plaques and monuments have been erected in memory of those who fell in World War I than World War II, the first was forgotten for many years. When Americans visit France, they generally travel to the Normandy beaches and the cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Yet there are many more soldiers buried in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon in the Meuse département, which is home to a World War I cemetery.

Can you tell us about the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of the Cincinnati, which both have a French branch?

They are patriotic organizations, the oldest of which is the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 to commemorate different battles, celebrate French-American friendship, and promote aid for veterans. It has 14 branches, one in each of the first American colonies and one in France. Its members are all descendants of officers who served in the U.S. Army and Navy, or in the French Royal Army, during the Revolutionary War. The Daughters of the American Revolution is a more recent organization, founded in 1890 to encourage patriotism and historical conservation. It is only open to women over 18, and its members are descendants of soldiers – not just officers – who fought in the Revolutionary War. There are almost 3,000 chapters in the United States and 24 abroad, including the Rochambeau Chapter in France, founded in 1934. A third of its members still descend from an American insurgent. In 1914, many of these Americans came to France to serve as nurses. One of them, Jane Delano, organized the Nursing Service of the American Red Cross. Under her management, almost 20,000 Daughters of the American Revolution served as nurses in France during World War I.

No one can forget Lafayette, who seems more popular in the United States than in France. Many cities in America are named after him, which is not the case in France. Do you know why?

There are many Lafayette streets and squares in France, but there are no towns or cities named Lafayette, La Fayette, or Fayetteville like in the United States. In America, where Lafayette is known as a hero of the Revolutionary War, his name has also been given to counties, streets, squares, parks, schools, and restaurants. But many people are unaware that several American towns are called La Grange, after the château in the Paris area where he spent his final years. All these places were named as such after Lafayette’s last, triumphant tour of the United States in 1824-1825. For the Americans, he symbolizes republican values. Yet in France, his image is different. He is a classic-liberal royalist, a champion of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – views which, in the chaos of the French Revolution, saw him hated by the court at Versailles and the revolutionaries alike. After a period of exile, time spent in Austrian jails, and an eventual return to France, his popularity rose and fell. He only briefly stepped back onto the political stage during the July Revolution in 1830. After his death, the complexity of his history ensured that he was soon forgotten…

French and American officials and intellectuals continue to quarrel, but the relationship between our soldiers, which has developed through combat, is still one of great mutual esteem. This was even the case during World War II, despite certain misunderstandings between de Gaulle and Roosevelt…

Absolutely. France’s role in American independence is still clearly remembered by U.S. soldiers. Upon arriving in Paris in 1917, the first thing the American general staff did was to visit Lafayette’s grave. During World War II, American soldiers were quick to come to the aid of the Free French Forces in Africa, despite the pro-Vichy positions of many American senior officials, including Roosevelt, who was also no fan of de Gaulle. In 1943, after the Allied landings in North Africa, American soldiers acknowledged that General de Gaulle was the only one capable of uniting the French, and convinced America’s leaders to change their policy.

Your work in Washington is one of philanthropy, a common activity in the United States but not in France. What led you to this sector?

Without a doubt, the desire to share the free education I received from the French republic. Without philanthropy, many young people from underprivileged backgrounds would never receive a college education in the United States. This represents the difference between France and America. In my opinion, Americans who succeed realize how lucky they have been, and want to give something back. Meanwhile, many French people think of education and healthcare as both a right and something owed to them. The United States is also a country in which entrepreneurship, whether for-profit or non-profit, does not have to deal with countless administrative formalities, and enthusiasm is always greater than jealousy. As a result, philanthropy can flourish. That being said, France is also capable of acts of great generosity. I became involved in philanthropy at a very young age thanks to the values of service taught by the Dominican nuns at my boarding school, and the example of my father, who was able to study in Paris thanks to funding provided by a wealthy merchant in his native city.

Interview published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.