December 31, 2007

A Positive History of French Immigration to the U.S.

Toasting the days of wine and commerce
In an effort to polish its image, France opens a downtown L.A. exhibit detailing immigrants' local contributions.
By Teresa Watanabe
Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2007,1,7834585,full.story

Enough with the images of baguettes, berets and perfume, s'il vous plait!

The French have brought far more to Los Angeles than those cliched products, ranging from a wool industry that thrived 150 years ago to the software that helped architect Frank Gehry design Walt Disney Concert Hall.

That was the message French officials delivered this week, as Pierre Vimont, France's ambassador to the United States, inaugurated an exhibit at the downtown Pico House on French immigrants in Los Angeles.

Enjoying French champagne and canapes Tuesday night, more than 100 people learned that early French immigrants were sheepherders and vintners, mayors and City Council members, bankers and engineers. Today's French immigrant community includes the presidents of Caltech (Jean-Lou Chameau) and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego (Roger Guillemin).

'France is more than cakes, perfume, fashion and good food,' said Philippe Larrieu, French consul general in Los Angeles. 'France is on the move in business, technology, services and industry.'

The immigrant exhibit is part of a flurry of initiatives launched by Larrieu and French Americans in Los Angeles to improve and broaden France's image, which officials say took a beating when the nation refused to support the U.S. in the Iraq war in 2003.

At the time, Larrieu recalled, comedian Jay Leno skewered the French as 'cowards.' Some Americans urged boycotts of French products. And Republican leaders ordered that House cafeterias rename French fries as freedom fries. (The French Embassy pointed out that fries actually originated in Belgium.)

Since then, the French government and French Americans here have rallied to raise their profile and put forth a 'new vision' of France, as Larrieu put it.

In recent years, they have launched a cultural exchange organization, a glossy bilingual magazine and a more visible presence in Los Angeles with new offices on Santa Monica Boulevard housing the French Consulate, the French American Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance Francaise educational program together for the first time.

In addition, France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who took office in May, has adopted a more pro-American stance, which has eased the job, Larrieu said.

A 54-year-old diplomat who has served in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Poland and elsewhere, Larrieu said he arrived in Los Angeles in 2004 to find a directive from then-Ambassador Jean-David Levitte: Change France's image.

Larrieu has been running to do so ever since.

The peripatetic diplomat has invited the likes of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to Bastille Day celebrations in Los Angeles, where common French-American values of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' are extolled.

Larrieu likes to remind Americans that France is America's 'oldest ally,' whose government supplied arms to the revolutionaries fighting the British. It is the only major European nation, he adds, that has never gone to war against the U.S.

Several times a year, Larrieu holds ceremonies to honor U.S. veterans who aided the French in both world wars, including those who helped liberate France from Nazi Germany in the 1944 Battle of Normandy.

'The basic message we wanted to convey was that the French are not selfish, the French are not cowards, the French can acknowledge the sacrifices of American friends,' Larrieu said this week over a lunch of lobster salad and salmon. 'For centuries, we have helped each other.'

In the business realm, Larrieu has tried to erase stereotypes of lazy French workers. In a dogged effort to lure more American investment to France, Larrieu said, he tells balking business interests that French labor laws have become more pro-business and workers have a healthy productivity rate.

And Larrieu has confronted head-on perceptions of anti-Semitism in France, frequently meeting with Jewish leaders and congregations, among them Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Cooper said Larrieu has arranged meetings for him with French nuclear scientists in Paris to discuss Jewish concerns about France's aid to Iran's nuclear industry. The diplomat has fielded tough questions from the Jewish community, Cooper said, about the spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in France in the early 2000s.

Some French Americans say Larrieu's can-do manner has inspired them to step forward with other initiatives. One of them is a new cultural exchange organization known as the France-Los Angeles Exchange.

The privately funded group was founded in 2005 by French American executives, including Gerald du Manoir, the son of American parents educated in Paris.Du Manoir said the furor over France's opposition to war in Iraq shocked him and others, compelling them to build cultural bridges.

The exhibit's historian, Helene Demeestere, had researched French immigrants in Los Angeles for years, but it was only after Larrieu arrived that she approached the consulate about an exhibit, she said.

The exhibit, which runs until Jan. 13 at Pico House, 430 N. Main St., features photos of French immigrants from 1827 to 1927. The images are displayed on strikingly modern walls of curved plastic to symbolize the immigrant's winding journey, said curator Tamara Devrient.

One of the first French immigrants to Los Angeles was Jean-Louis Vignes, a Bordeaux vintner who arrived here in 1831. He imported the first French vines here and lured so many compatriots to join him that he became known as the 'father of French immigration to Los Angeles,' Demeestere said.

Other immigrants followed the early pioneers in two subsequent waves: one during the Gold Rush years and a larger one during the 1880s. The Gold Rush years attracted more-educated immigrants who became political and business leaders; the second wave was dominated by poor and less-skilled migrants from the Pyrenees and Alps regions of France, Demeestere said.

She estimates that today's French immigrant community in Southern California numbers 50,000 to 60,000, with no discernible center since the French Quarter on Aliso Street in downtown Los Angeles was swallowed up by municipal developments more than eight decades ago.

'I wanted to present an image of French people which is different than the wine and the food,' Demeestere said. 'They were pioneers and entrepreneurs.'

That message, Larrieu said, reinforces his own mission to reshape the French image in L.A.

The diplomat has at least one piece of unfinished business. He invited Jay Leno to lunch -- but said he had yet to hear back.

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