Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate defeated by Barack Obama in the 2012 US presidential elections, has often acknowledged his affinity with France and all things French. In this article and the twin feature on Invisible Paris, we lift the lid on Romney's French connections...
The language and the knowledge of the country is something he picked up during a two-and-a-half-year stint as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints missionary to France in the late 1960s, including six months spent in Bordeaux. During that time he and fellow Mormon missionary Steven Bang lived in an apartment at number 4, Place du Maucaillou, in the vicinity of the ever-lively Capucins market. He was stationed there as a 20-year-old from January 1968, after time spent in the northern cities of Le Havre and Brest, and ahead of a six-month stay in Paris.
Agence France Presse recently quoted 79-year-old André Salarnier, the former head of the Mormon chapel in Talence, recalling Romney as being a “big and charismatic fellow” who would “often come to our house for meals and lapped up my wife’s Breton crêpes”... as well as her coq au vin according to some sources. Salarnier also remembers him as being a “natural leader and a charming young man who was very open and very much a Francophile”.
On top of the daily routine of prayer, study and door-to-door evangelisation as a two-man unit with Steven Bang, Romney’s leadership qualities saw him take on additional responsibilities when he was chosen to oversee the work of fellow missionaries throughout south-western France. The pair also became amateur firefighters on one occasion when out driving near Bordeaux. Bang remembers them noticing a building which was on fire. Romney instantly decided to head straight for the building which they entered in order to help with the evacuation effort.
|The view today from Romney's front door in Bordeaux.|
Romney was in Bordeaux when the mass strikes of May 1968 broke out, bringing the whole country to a standstill. Mormon missionaries were dependent on funds that were sent from the US (they lived on $110 per month), but the money was drying up. Romney sought alternative means of obtaining the much-needed cash by travelling down to Spain to withdraw money from banks there.
On June 16th 1968, Romney was involved in a serious car crash which occurred in Bernos-Beaulac, 75 kilometres to the south of Bordeaux. He was at the wheel of the car which was bringing Mormon French mission president Duane Anderson and others back from Pau, where a small Mormon congregation had been in dispute.
Their vehicle was hit head-on by a car driven by a Catholic priest, Albert Marie, and Anderson’s wife Leola was killed instantly. Romney, who has always maintained he was not at fault (witnesses claimed Albert Marie was drunk when the crash took place), was seriously injured. He was even initially feared dead; the policeman who first reported to the scene wrote “Il est mort” (he is dead), in Romney’s passport.
At hospital he came out of a coma. Four days later he was on a Paris-bound train in a carriage that had been chartered by the Church. Ambulances were even authorised onto the platforms at Bordeaux Saint-Jean Station to drop off Romney and Anderson. (This "VIP" treatment was attributed to the fact that Romney's father, George W. Romney, was Governor of Michigan and had until recently been one of the frontrunners in the race to become the Republican party's candidate in the 1968 presidential election.)
In December 2011, Romney told supporters in New Hampshire about his time in France, which he described as “not exactly a Third World country” but adding that “most of the apartments I lived in had no refrigerators”. Was it his Place du Marcaillou residence which he recalled when talking about the “little pads on the ground” he would use in the absence of a working lavatory, adding that “there was a chain behind you with a bucket”?
Bathing facilities were also rudimentary according to Romney: “If we were lucky, we actually bought a hose and we stuck it on the sink... and washed ourselves that way.” He also recalled saying to himself that “Wow, I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America”.
Well, that could be how he experienced Bordeaux, or indeed Le Havre or Brest… but possibly does not correspond to the living quarters he went on to enjoy in the capital’s chic 16th arrondissement. Invisible Paris takes up the story here…
- Find it: 4, Place du Maucaillou, Bordeaux
- Subsequent Invisible Bordeaux item published about the Mormon chapel in Talence
- Car crash photos credited to André Salarnier