The Foundations of French-American Friendship

From Washington D.C. to New York City and from New Orleans to Paris, many philanthropic organizations continue to nurture the bonds connecting France and the United States through history, politics, economics, language, and culture.
Nous Foundation co-founder and president Rudy Bazenet in New Orleans. Courtesy of Nous Foundation

In October 1781, General Rochambeau refused to accept Britain’s surrender at Yorktown, pointing instead to George Washington as the real victor of the historic siege. The French commander’s public gesture, deferring to the Americans on the field of battle, was an early sign of the enduring mutual admiration that would blossom between the people of our two countries.

More than that, it paved the way to how both nations would come to regard one another. Many in France saw the new republic as an inspiration – even a model – of the freedom to which they themselves aspired, and Washington, Rochambeau, and other French and American officers were soon exchanging letters across the Atlantic debating how to keep this relationship alive.

A Select Group of Past Revolutionaries

The Society of the Cincinnati, together with its French partner of the same name, was founded in 1783 by American and French veterans of the War of Independence to keep the historic struggle in the forefront of the collective imagination. Its existence sparked a tradition of French-American initiatives and programs based on shared cultural, commercial, and political interests.

The American branch consists of 13 separate, autonomous societies in the original revolutionary states with a landmark mansion, Anderson House, as its headquarters in Washington D.C. The current president general – the 40th – is banker Frank Keech Turner Jr., who defines the society’s purpose as “promoting scholarly and popular interest in the extraordinary generation that created this great republic.” Taken together, the 13 societies are a treasure trove of material on the American Revolution and its history. The New Jersey Society has commissioned a lecture on the Revolution and its legacy every year, without interruption, since the date of its foundation. In 2008, it published a selection from the more than 200 talks.

In France, the list of members in the Société des Cincinnati reads like a Who’s Who of the French Ancien Régime. The current president is the Marquis de Colbert Cannet, while the two vice-presidents are Vicomte Patrick de Cambourg and the Marquis de Vogue, and the secretary general is the Comte de Caffarelli.

A brieflook at some ofthe partnerships and foundations that have followed this pioneering transatlantic organization reflects their wide scope. But also their common, overarching objective which, according to another organization, “honors the past, celebrates the present, and builds for the future of French-American culture.”

The English drawing room at Anderson House, the future headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington D.C., 1910. © Frances Benjamin Johnston/Society of the Cincinnati
French-American Cultural Foundation president Debra Dunn at Versailles. Courtesy of the French-American Cultural Foundation

For Francophiles in the District and Beyond

That commitment comes from the French-American Cultural Foundation (F-ACF), created by one American as the expression of his admiration of all things French. Leonard Silverstein, a Washington D.C. tax lawyer, had no special ties to France until he came under its spell on a business trip to Paris, and started the foundation in 1998. He was its president and leading force until his death in 2018, aged 96. France named him Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur. He was, as Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States, called him, “a consummate Francophile.”

The F-ACF was established as a local, medium-sized nonprofit focusing on French-American arts, and by 2019 the F-ACF had new officers and a somewhat enlarged vision of its function. In the fall of 2022, a group of F-ACF members traveled to France to raise the organization’s profile there and meet with local partners. The Palace of Versailles is one of them, and the group attended a performance of Mozart arias at the famous Royal Opera, followed by dinner in the Hall ofBattles, which boasts a large painting of the Siege of Yorktown. Another partner is the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

The F-ACF’s current president, Debra Dunn, has followed in the founder’s footsteps by having no French roots, but developed a longstanding interest in all things French while serving in the White House under President George H.W. Bush, then on Vice-President Dick Cheney’s staff, and more recently as a philanthropist. In broadening its scope, the foundation hopes to create a new dynamism in French-American cooperation. “Culture reflects what people care about and think about,” says Debra Dunn. “I like to think of culture as the reflection of the soul of a nation, and while the performing and fine arts are an important part of that, now we are also looking to aerospace, cuisine, diplomacy, medicine, and science. Our approach reaches a larger audience, and reflects the current transatlantic relationship more accurately.”

The foundation’s major events to date have included a symposium held just prior to the launching of the James Webb Space Telescope, with the participation of staffers from NASA and the Paris area-based Arianespace, the world’s first commercial launch service provider. Christened “The James Webb Telescope: Finding First Light and the Power of Science Through Partnerships,” the event was staged at the French Embassy, frequently an anchor for foundation initiatives for location and additional support.

More recently, the F-ACF hosted Ambassador Guillaume Gomez, Special Representative ofthe President of France for Gastronomy, for a discussion called “Cuisine as Diplomacy: Around the Table.” On the future schedule is a fall 2024 symposium on Lafayette, “the man for whom much is named [in the United States] but little known,” and a winter 2024 show called “Savoir-Faire and Innovation: Oh La La and Wow” on the dynamics of creativity.

The foundation is also planning two events to support the Chemical Biology of Cancer Research Center, which will be housed in a new building on the Institut Curie campus in Paris, and Debra Dunn mentions France’s positive reactions to proposals focusing on less conventional cross-cultural issues: “We find energy, hope, and creativity where we explore how the two countries complement each other.”

Linking Louisiana to the French-Speaking World

In 2020, Louisiana native Scott Tilton and his French partner Rudy Bazenet quit their jobs to establish the Nous Foundation in New Orleans. Scott Tilton, co-founder and executive director, said that Nous has two objectives: “to bring back French to the French Quarter” and to serve as “a platform for exchange between Louisiana and the French-speaking world.” Earlier this year, Nous opened its first center and museum dedicated to French and Creole cultures in a historic building known as the Beauregard-Keyes House and Gardens.

Nous Foundation co-founder and executive director Scott Tilton (right) with Haitian curator Max Jean-Louis and Katya Vaz, the foundation’s art director. Courtesy of Nous Foundation
The Nous Foundation gala in New Orleans, March 2023. © Wayan Barré

Scott Tilton, an alumnus of Sciences Po in Paris, first worked as a consultant to the European Union, the United Nations, and the French government. A few years ago, he teamed up with his diplomat husband to organize an application for Louisiana to become the first U.S. state to be accepted as a member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. President Emmanuel Macron visited Louisiana in December 2022 to celebrate the state’s successful bid, and leading Nous members paid a return visit to the Élysée Palace last June.

In a recent survey, Scott Tilton says, 100,000 people in the state reported speaking French at home. Since its inception, Nous has launched free language-learning programs, organized conferences with advocates of French and Louisiana Creole (also called Kouri-Vini), and developed global partnerships to support activism on the ground. “Our aim is to provide a platform to dismantle the barrier between the United States and the French-speaking world through education and research.”

An economic forum and job fair held at Tulane University in January 2023 was a first. Of the 30 businesses and organizations that took part, about half were from out of state – mainly from France and Quebec. The event will be repeated in April 2024, and Scott Tilton is confident that what he half-jokingly calls “Davos on the bayou” will become a permanent annual fixture.The Nous Foundation has also produced two feature films in Creole, and recently opened a chapter in Detroit to bring Midwestern French speakers together. A French bookstore is also set to open this month in New Orleans.

A Hotbed of French and American Leaders

The French-American Foundation is another busy institution, both in terms of events and members. The New York-based organization and its Paris counterpart “play a central role in promoting transatlantic relations in the areas of government, business, public policy, and culture,” says its president, Caroline Naralasetty. “We’re looking to create a connection between rising American and French leaders.” Best known is the foundation’s Young Leaders program, which annually selects between 40 and 45 professionals from France and the United States for an intensive course designed to advance their area of interest. Emmanuel Macron, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former prime minister Alain Juppé, and former senator and basketball star Bill Bradley are all alumni of the program.

The French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders seminar in Austin, Texas, 2022. © Nick Berard

“We’re an organization that collects people,” observes Caroline Naralasetty, reflecting on the foundation’s activities. A recurring “Policy Breakfast,” for instance, hosts an expert guest to discuss “topics ofmutual concern” such as urbanism, trade flows, and political polling. Last September, a dinner on the theme of “environmental awareness” invited guest speaker Ravina Advani, the head of energy, natural resources, and renewables coverage at BNP Paribas in the United States. Every year, members also troop to Washington D.C. for a conference on cyber security, and the foundation’s annual gala is one of New York City’s most popular social occasions.

When the question comes up – as it inevitably does – of French official involvement, the foundation, like other NGOs active in the same field, stresses its independence and its reliance on public support. But the relationship with France’s top diplomats in the U.S. is close. Ambassador Philippe Etienne was guest of honor at two separate French-American Foundation breakfasts during his tenure, and Gérard Araud discussed the war in Ukraine and the French presidential election with the organizations’ members back in 2022. Meanwhile, another former ambassador, François Bujon de l’Estang is an honorary director of the French-American Foundation.

Caring for French Graves and Monuments in the United States

One afternoon last September, a crowd gathered on New York’s Fifth Avenue to witness the unveiling of a bronze statue of the Little Prince, the young hero of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s eternally popular novella, written between Manhattan and Long Island in 1942-1943. The statue was commissioned by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français. Technically, the society is a branch of the French group responsible for maintaining war memorials and war memory, but in the U.S. it functions as an independent NGO and can therefore accept contributions from the public.

The statue of the Little Prince, installed in Manhattan by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français, September 2023. © Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic

Its multiple activities include responsibility for the 2,000 burial places of members of the French military who died and were interred in the United States, from the War of Independence to this day, as well as keeping track of the numerous monuments with links to France in America. According to research conducted by the society and its president, Thierry Chaunu, there are more statues and memorials of Joan of Arc in the U.S. than in the warrior-saint’s native France!

Taking Care of Business on Both Sides of the Atlantic

The French-American Chamber of Commerce Foundation was launched in 2012 by the French-American Chamber of Commerce to reflect the expansion in bilateral trade (138 billion dollars in 2019) and the business opportunities this has opened for new generations of entrepreneurs. The U.S. is the top destination for French investment, and the U.S. is the largest foreign investor in France. The foundation’s main role is to provide multiple, merit-based, post-graduate scholarships to French and American students, and it has currently contributed more than one million dollars.

What members in some groups tend to point out is that their French-American organizations follow a narrative that, short of war or some other extreme development, is not affected by the state of bilateral relations. They highlight, for example, that Nous was formed when relations between Washington and Paris had been seriously undermined by the dispute over the building of nuclear submarines for Australia. Poet and playwright Paul Claudel, who was France’s ambassador to America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, may have been right when he observed that what brought these two linguistically and culturally different countries closer together was that they were “morally united […] by ties of time-honored friendship.”

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.