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French Town Quietly Cheers On a Son: Kerry

Times Staff Writer

Imagine the scene here a year from now if this genteel village enters U.S. history.

On Aug. 15, 2005, President John F. Kerry returns with great fanfare to St.-Briac-sur-Mer, where his parents met and where he spent childhood vacations in a Breton coastal landscape immortalized by Renoir.

Escorted by his cousin, Mayor Brice Lalonde -- a former candidate for the French presidency -- Kerry leads the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the Allied liberation of the village from the Nazis.

Speaking fluent French, Kerry greets crowds filling narrow lanes and a town plaza festooned with flags of both nations. Kerry announces that he has chosen this community of 2,000, a cherished refuge of his globe-trotting family since 1923, to symbolize the rapprochement of the United States and France -- indeed, Europe -- after years of transatlantic tension.

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With less than three months to go before the election, relatives and friends of the family who remember Kerry from periodic youthful visits are rooting for him.

“I was so very, very happy when he succeeded in becoming the candidate,” said Christiane Menard, whose parents worked for the Democratic senator’s maternal family in its bluff-top mansion with a spectacular view of rocky beaches. “Johnny was a great kid. He has a lot of determination.”

Of course, there are several obstacles to any presidential visit next year. For one thing, Kerry has to get elected. For another, his family doesn’t seem enthusiastic about mentioning, let alone celebrating, St. Briac’s existence right now.

“We have been asked by the family to play down the French connection,” Kerry’s uncle Ian Forbes said when reached last week by telephone at Les Essarts, as the family mansion is known. Forbes said he last saw Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, during a weekend visit here about four years ago.

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With U.S.-French relations soured by the Iraq war, an association with France could be a political liability for Kerry. Some Republican leaders sneer at the candidate because he speaks French and has French relatives. On Thursday, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) accused Kerry of looking and acting “French,” and claimed that he supported socialism.

Asked about that situation, Forbes said: “What can I do? It’s very, very sad indeed.”

The French-bashing against Kerry smacks of bigotry and is a sad indicator of the U.S. political climate, asserts Zachary Miller of Paris, vice chairman of Democrats Abroad, a group of politically active U.S. expatriates. Miller said he has worked with Kerry’s sister Diana, a longtime teacher in overseas schools, on the senator’s campaign.

“That John Kerry has traveled outside the United States, that he speaks other languages, all those are good things,” Miller said. “The criticism, it’s all part of the dumbing-down of America. I think it appeals only to a small part of the Republican base. I don’t think most Republicans feel that way.”

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Kerry’s paternal ancestors were Czech Jews who converted to Catholicism. On his mother’s side, the Forbes clan was one of the founding families of New England and traces its roots to Britain.

But 81 years ago, Kerry’s maternal grandfather, an international financier named James Grant Forbes, was drawn to this region of France. Brittany’s north coast has a wild, rain-swept beauty and, like Ireland and Scotland, a strong Celtic influence. The summer sun gives way suddenly to fog that engulfs the green hills and the stone houses with peaked roofs, spiked towers and wood facades of maroon and brown.

The Forbes estate became a local institution. James Forbes and his wife, Margaret Winthrop -- a descendant of the first governor of Massachusetts -- employed people from St. Briac to keep the vast grounds, tend the stables and cars, and help a family that grew to 11 children.

“I remember Madame Forbes: I would see her walking her dogs, two boxers, all the time,” said Rene Desriac, 74, who owned a grocery and a clothing store in the cozy downtown for decades. “She was tall, imposing, elegant. John Kerry looks a lot like her side of the family.”

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The Forbeses were scattered in Boston, Britain and elsewhere, but they spent summers in St. Briac. As a result, Kerry’s parents -- Rosemary Forbes and Richard Kerry -- met and fell in love here in the late 1930s, family members and acquaintances said. Richard Kerry had come to study art in a place whose powerful colors and moody light had long captivated painters.

The couple returned to the United States, and John Kerry was born in Colorado in 1943. By then, the family mansion in France had been taken over by Nazi occupiers and turned into the local German military headquarters. The Nazis burned the place down during the Allied liberation in 1944. Kerry has described seeing his mother weep as they visited the ruins of Les Essarts.

A smaller version of the house was rebuilt in the early 1950s. Kerry became one of the relatives from around the world who made pilgrimages here, especially when his father served as a U.S. diplomat in Berlin and Oslo and the younger Kerry attended boarding school in Switzerland.

Menard and her brother, Michel Vaudin, whose mother worked for Kerry’s grandmother until the matriarch died in 1970, remember Kerry playing tennis, swimming in the coves below Les Essarts and enjoying boisterous family gatherings. Kerry spoke decent French, but English was the household language, they said.

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In an article in L’Express magazine this year, Lalonde, the mayor, described his American cousin as an athlete, nature lover and a youthful leader-in-the-making.

“He was the one who organized the games, led the group, symbolized America,” Lalonde wrote. Mindful, perhaps, of the family’s apparent preemptive political strategy, Lalonde continued: “Because, to cut short all insinuation, well intentioned or ill intentioned from whichever coast of the Atlantic it may come, John Kerry is in no way French, even if he knows France!”

Menard recalls a brief visit by an older, more somber Kerry after his service in Vietnam.

“He was very affected by that war,” Menard said. “You could see it in his face.”

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Understandably, Menard and others close to the family are big fans of the senator from Massachusetts. Other residents more recently discovered the St. Briac connection and tend to be pleased and amused.

“People say, ‘People are talking about St. Briac everywhere,’ ” said Bruno Voyer, a city councilman, drinking coffee in a bar across a pristine triangular plaza from the stately village post office. “It’s Gallic pride: ‘My town is on TV.’ ”

On the other hand, some locals grumble that they’re pretty much fed up with television cameras prowling around town. Voyer also complains that the Kerry splash has further distracted Lalonde from the people’s business. The mayor lives in Paris and spends one or two days a week at City Hall.

Lalonde, a self-described free-market environmentalist, served as environment minister in the 1980s and won 4% of the vote as the presidential candidate of an environmental party, Ecology Generation. Lalonde attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month, then jetted off to China, Voyer and others said.

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Lalonde was away on vacation and unavailable for interviews last week, City Hall officials said.

Voyer, a political rival of the mayor, worries about the Kerry hoopla. He says the town doesn’t need more tourists or foreign home-buyers driving up real estate prices, but more year-round sources of jobs and income.

It might be getting carried away to expect a Kerry victory to produce a boom for St. Briac. But the local press has reported that Lalonde wants to invite Kerry, especially if he’s president, to next year’s anniversary celebrations of the liberation.

For some, the idea of a U.S. presidential motorcade maneuvering through the country lanes stirs hopes of U.S.-French reconciliation.

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“I certainly hope it would help,” said Desriac, the longtime resident. “I’m pro-American. I read Reader’s Digest all the time. I’ve subscribed since 1950.”

For others, there are more practical considerations.

“We are pretty well saturated during the summer months. We don’t need any more tourists then,” said Eric Leveque, the president of the municipal tourist office.

“If a lot of Americans are going to come, it would be great if they could come in the off-season.”

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