In November 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of the Fifth Republic (France) paid a visit to Washington DC. Actually, it wasn’t just “paying a visit.” It was a serious mission of diplomatic reconciliation. You see, when France’s President Jaques Chirac refused to join in the USA’s effort to invade Iraq, it ended up being far more than a disagreement between allies. It got nasty. Insults were traded. There was a lot of resentment and bitterness on both sides. It got so tense that it became silly. Look up “Freedom fries” for a sense of the absurdity. So when new President Sarkozy arrived, there was a sense that the visit was important.
Sarkozy spoke to a Joint Session of Congress. He spoke in French, so all the American stations and sites that carried the speech had simultaneous translation into English.
But since I know French, I wanted to hear the speech in French. I know that the impact of French on the emotions is different. With a little bit of effort, I found a video recording of the speech left undubbed.
I saw and heard him say this:
“Je veux vous dire une chose importante : chaque fois que dans le monde tombe un soldat américain, je pense à ce que l’armée d’Amérique a fait pour la France. Je pense à eux et je suis triste, comme on est triste de perdre un membre de sa famille.”
“I want to tell you something important: Each time an American soldier falls somewhere in the world, I think of what the army of America did for France. I think of them, and I am sad, like one is sad after having lost a member of his own family.”
I’m choking up now as I type this. And I recall crying when I heard him say it then.
That visit, and that talk repaired a lot. The diplomatic differences of opinion between the two countries did not cease. But France was glorious and noble in this act of humility. It was not groveling. It was an act of modesty that exuded, in its soft sincerity, a noble dignity.
I saw a glimpse of a quality that could be called “a regal unpretentiousness.”
If people knew how exalted it is, they wouldn’t think it beneath them, and they’d do it all the time.