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La Revolution in L.A. : The Fractioned French Community Has Finally Found Something It Can Agree On--It’s Time to Celebrate!

Times Staff Writer

Stop moi if you’ve heard this one:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .

The French Revolution inspired revolutions that would convulse the world for the next century . . . and yet, soon adrift from its own ideals, it came to devour itself.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . .

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The Rights of Man, a blueprint for human liberty, were ringingly set forth . . . and yet zealots scrapped even the calendar, renumbering the years (starting with 1) and renaming the months (Vendemiaire for vintage; Thermidor for heat, not lobsters.)

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . .

Down With Royalty

They executed a king, after 13 centuries of kings . . . and beheaded as well a chemist, a poet and a feminist, and ultimately shot, drowned and otherwise inventively did away with tens of thousands of their countrymen--peasant, priest and gentry.

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So hokey, hackneyed old Charles Dickens, an Englishman living 100 years after the fact, was right after all.

And the French Revolution--blood bath, epic, inspiration for limitless swashbucklers--is no less equivocal an event now than it was 200 years ago today, on the first “Bastille Day,” when a Paris mob looking for gunpowder assaulted the Bastille and freed its pittance of prisoners: four forgers, two lunatics and a sexually deranged count.

On the same streets where Parisians once tied scarlet ribbons around their necks to mock the victims of the “national razor"--the guillotine--street vendors of today blithely sell miniature guillotine earrings.

Red Stocking Caps

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Ambivalence : The French argue the politics of 1792 as vehemently as they do the politics of 1992, when the united European economic community will be created. Memorabilia seekers may buy a Phrygian hat, the red stocking cap of the revolution, or its opposite number, a fleur-de-lis armband, to mourn the Terror and the overthrow of the monarchy.

Lucien Plauzoles, born in Los Angeles of French parents, owns La Cite in Westwood, Los Angeles’ French bookstore. Three weeks ago, he was in France, where Parisians are already sated with revolutionary hype. But in the Loire region, whose citizens remember that--as in the nearby Vendee--thousands of common people, their ancestors, were slain by radical zealots, the revolution is still not popular; Plauzoles saw only one bicentennial poster. His uncle warned: “Don’t talk to me about the revolution or I’ll come to dinner wearing a white T-shirt with gold fleurs de lis.

At home in Los Angeles, the July 14 commemorations among the far-flung and far-from-unified French community were in the past all but nonexistent, until this year, when some Franco-Californians--chef, restaurateur, diplomat--prodded their countrymen to act.

Apart from a few well-known restaurateurs, actors, composers and such, the French community here, numbering perhaps 40,000, keeps an exceedingly low profile. Said a university professor who teaches French, “I wonder, if I were not in the business, if I would be aware of it (the French community).”

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Other groups who settled in Los Angeles are more visible--Greeks, Italians, Armenians. Even the Iowa picnics in Long Beach draw far more people than the annual July 14 French consular receptions have traditionally pulled in from the French community the past.

But this year, almost every July 14 RSVP is coming back “ oui "--to the consular reception, to the UCLA bal populaire gala today, and to the public-invited “French Day” on Sunday for music, food (a 38-foot-tall cake) and cultural events at Hollywood Park.

Even the French who pulled it off admit that it is a miracle of cooperation.

Says chef Michel Richard, on whose tables at Citrus were laid the plans for some of the events, “I think the French Revolution was our small revolution in L.A.,” a revolution of unity.

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“It’s the first time that the French community has actually gotten together on their own without any impetus from anyone else and done something,” said a French-speaking American woman closely involved with the community. “And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.”

The Hollywood Park plan originated in the waning hours of a New Year’s Eve party, when Richard and his brother-in-law, Jean-Jacques Retourne, “realized it’s 200 years and said, ‘My God, we have six months,’ ” Retourne recounted.

A week later, the letters went out, and chefs and others, including French-Tahitian restaurateur Dora Fourcade, began meeting for breakfast to lay the plans. It was not easy; to hear the principals tell it leaves one surprised that the revolution ever came off.

“I was born and raised in France,” said Retourne, a 1966 graduate of Fairfax High School. “We are a bunch of back stabbers . Everybody wants to have the glory, nobody wants to help anyone else. I almost changed my name at one point!”

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“It was always the Jewish, the Italian community helping each other out. We were going our own ways . . . we all came to realize we’re all a little bit older"--and perhaps needing one another more.

Robert Robaire is the founder of Robaire’s, the first proto-trendy French restaurant in Los Angeles, opened in 1952 and patronized by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Peter Lorre, and then consul general, writer and liberation hero Romain Gary.

“Frankly,” Robaire says, “all the French people are very hard to agree; they all disagree. You go into a bistro in France . . . you’ll find 10 guys and every one has a different opinion. So we had the hardest time to get them all together.”

Certainly the snide predictions that this, like the American Bicentennial, would be notable chiefly as a merchandising extravaganza, have not come to pass. At Plauzoles’ bookshop, the sale of revolution-related books and recordings that he took such pains to stock “has been a gigantic flop.” A best seller in France sold one copy here. A highly praised English-language chronicle of the revolution, 13 copies. “I think the intellectual community in general is either indifferent or downright hostile to the revolution here in L.A.”

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His big sellers, he sighed, are versions of the Phrygian bonnets and the “charlotte” mobcaps, “and other funny party wear.”

But many in the French community hope for something loftier. A few links to home might be in order.

“This is why Michel Richard wanted to create a more close community, put the French people closer together,” Robaire said. “The Germans have Oktoberfest, the Italians do beautiful celebrations. We are the only ones, why don’t we do it? If it works, it would be a wonderful reason to continue and do it better and better every year.”

Bernard Decaillet, owner of Video France, a French film and video shop in West Los Angeles, agrees that “there is not that bond you have in some communities.” Even in France itself, from province to province, “they don’t seem to speak the same language,” or “we speak the same but we don’t think the same way. The people from Paris still feel superior because they are from the capital . . . (and) are a different breed of people from those from Marseille or Nice.” Even food preferences vary wildly from region to region--"some eat butter, some olive oil.”

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The prosperity and independence of the French community here has militated against its identity as a single, welded ethnic unit.

Says Dora Fourcade, owner of L’Ermitage restaurant and coordinator of the Sunday event, the French “are not like a people who came here because of persecution or anything. They came here because they decided they wanted to try life in California (and) settled in different areas . . . so it is not a tight community at all.”

Lack of Crises

No religious or political crisis, no Irish potato famine equivalent sent thousands of French into American exile, as they have in other nations. Certainly the silkworm epidemic of the 19th Century sent many Lyon families abroad, many to Canada, who came later to the United States. The Socialist election of the early 1980s released a new wavelet of businessmen to the United States. The slow trickle and low numbers also meant no French equivalents of Little Italy or Chinatown or Polish or Irish parts of Chicago and Boston.

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And once they were here, they were widely welcomed, unlike other ethnic groups; an employee or employer with a French accent is considered sophisticated, chic.

The drawback of that easy melding is “a lot of loss of identity,” and “most of them who do succeed become very American,” Plauzoles says. “One of the things they probably won’t lose is something to do with a national holiday like this.”

Mostly it was love or money that brought them here--marriages with Americans, or business opportunities in high-tech industries, tourism, banking and other such professions, not just cuisine.

Many French, mostly those young and enticed by Hollywood’s image as young Americans are entranced by Paris’, “want to work, find a job” here, says Jean-Louis Rysto, deputy consul general. They find something they cannot always find in France--"Here, you want to work hard, you will succeed.” Where a difficult diploma is the entree in France, “in the U.S. the spirit is completely different, they give the job to the one most qualified.”

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No Social Programs

The corollary lack of government social programs unnerves some. “That frightens the typical French person who comes here--'I have to wait till I’m 65 to get medical insurance?’ ” says Gayle Dufour. She and her French-born husband, Charles, will celebrate the glorious 14th with a party to toast all the new plumbing in the house they are building.

Col. Leon Harmel, who will carry the flag at Hollywood Park, has been here for 29 years. The World War II French air force pilot, president of the local French veterans’ group and of an allied veterans’ group in Glendale, deliberately shocked his large family on one trip back to France when he told them he was now married to an American woman (he had married a French girl years ago).

Enjoying their gasps of horror, he told them his first and only wife had finally become an American citizen. But for him, “I feel the president (of the veterans group) must be French. That’s what prevented me. Otherwise I’d be a citizen as well.”

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In Southern California, “one thing we all agree on 100%,” Rysto says, is a new French cable television show, two hours of news and programming each day on KSCI.

Begun in May, 1988, the program, the only one in the country, has 750,000 viewers. And while “there’s no way there’s 750,000 Frenchmen” here, says executive vice president Elizabeth Forney, French-speaking Cambodians, Lebanese, Iranians, Belgians, Swiss and Canadians watch, as do Francophile Americans, whose numbers also swell the ranks of the score of French cultural organizations around Southern California, sometimes outnumbering Frenchmen.

Alas, Forney says, so many viewers, so few advertisers. French firms “have a difficult time getting the concept of how powerful” the medium is here. Owner Alec Costandinos has aired a plea for viewer support, and more than 200 checks from viewers have come in already, at about $30 a person, 60% of them from Americans, to help the show stay afloat. It is Americans who often celebrate Bastille Day here more vigorously than the French, Americans who worship France publicly and praise its mature, less naive but perhaps less optimistic culture.

Fondness for the West

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Whatever they miss from home--for Forney it is leche vitrine, the leisurely window shopping, and deep friendships instead of casual acquaintances; for the Dufours, in the years before gourmet markets, it was cheese and wine (“We’d go to Trader Joe’s every week and pretend we were in France”)--there are 40,000 of them still here, fond of California.

The movers and shakers who organized this July 14 vow it will not take another 100 years to unify the French community. “We have done something great one time, why not again?” Rysto says.

And Richard, who admits that Frenchmen “fight all the time” except in the kitchen, goes further: “We are going to do it every year.”

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