Our little city by the river has more than its fair share of Frankophiles, and those of us who continue to regard our French friends with amour et affection, will gather today in our favorite tavernes et bistros, sip a little Pernod, and try to remember the words to La Marseillaise. That’s right, today is Bastille Day—the French equivalent of our Fourth of July.
Louisville’s French connections are as colorful as they are numerous. Folks here in Louisville know of our close ties to our French cousins; and so do the citizens of Paris (Ky.) and Fayette County.
The county surrounding Lexington is named after Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, the French aristocrat and military officer who served as a general in the American Revolutionary War. A bust of LaFayette is on display in front of Louisville’s old jail building, at 514 West Liberty Street. And the hero of the French Revolution is gazing across Liberty Street into Jefferson Square; where the flag of France flies in tribute to our Sister City, Montpellier, France.
Not far away, standing majestically in front of the old Jefferson County Courthouse (Renamed “Metro Hall” by Mayor Jerry Abramson), looking out into the intersection of Sixth and Jefferson Streets, is Louisville’s namesake, King Louis XVI, larger than life. Interestingly, the statue was completed shortly before the King’s execution, in 1793. The French had a lot of reasons for sending Louis to the guillotine; not the least of which was the fact that he bankrupted the treasury by backing the Americans in their revolution against the British.
LaFayette was none too keen on chopping King Louis’ head off, but Max Robespierre (a lawyer, of course) persuaded the French Assembly: “Louis must die, so that the country may live.” So the problem arose: What to do with Louis’ beautiful marble statue? The French are nothing, if not the world’s greatest aficionados of fine art. They just couldn’t destroy such a fine work or art; neither could they put it on public display, after they had just separated the subject’s body from his head.
The French government put Louis’ statue in a storage warehouse, where it remained until 1965, when the kind folks over in our Sister City, Montpellier, paid to have it sent over to Louisville. Now, his royal visage peers down upon all of the litigants and lawyers entering and leaving the Hall of Justice (and, upon all the criminals entering and leaving City Hall).
Americans have always had a love affair with the French. We helped them lick the Germans in a couple of serious wars (you could look it up), and boys of our generation still dream about Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Cherchez la femme!
Normandy beach memorial
Like any love affair, we’ve gone through some rough spots. Old Abe Lincoln got a mite het up when the French tried to side with the South during the Civil War (know around these parts as “The War of Northern Aggression”). And, a few years ago, there was a plethora of loose talk about “freedom fries,” “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and the like. Such rude expressions of nationalistic pique are now considered déclassé.
Since the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France, our relationship with our French cousins has definitely warmed. After meeting with President Obama, he was quoted saying "Obama? C'est mon copain" ("Obama? He's my buddy").
So, let’s all join with our meilleurs amis pour toujours (BFF’s), and sing:
La Marseillaise, French National Anthem (Fr/En)