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The 2012 US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, spent more than two years living in Paris and Bordeaux in the 1960s, where he worked as a Mormon missionary.
The 2012 US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, spent more than two years living in Paris and Bordeaux in the 1960s, where he worked as a Mormon missionary.

The crash and connection that moulded Romney

Mitt Romney's 20-month stay in France as a youngster had a lasting effect on him. He surivived a car crash and his time in the country gave him an opportunity to develop leadership skills and, of course, learn how to speak French.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE // As the France of June 1968 emerged from a burst of revolutionary fervour among students and workers, a terrifying road accident presented Mitt Romney, the US Republicans' probable presidential candidate, with a life-changing experience.

It could easily have been life-ending.

During his spell as a Mormon missionary in France, Mr Romney was driving five church colleagues towards Bordeaux after a meeting in Pau, farther south.

At the entrance to the village of Bernos-Beaulac, the car was hit by a Mercedes driven in the opposite direction by a Roman Catholic priest.

Leola Anderson, the wife of the American president of the French mission, Duane, was killed. A gendarme was convinced Mr Romney, entirely blameless in the accident, was dead, too, and wrote as much on his passport.

In fact, he suffered only a broken arm, swollen face and black eye and made a full recovery.

Suzanne Farel, a French church member, was in the back of the car and also survived. She has described vivid memories of the Mercedes suddenly appearing head-on in their path. Contemporary reports, never confirmed, said the priest was under the influence of alcohol.

Mr Anderson was badly hurt and left France soon afterwards, leaving the young Mitt Romney as acting co-director of the national mission in Paris.

The extra work and responsibility are said to have left him little opportunity to reflect on his brush with death. "We had lots to do," another passenger, David Wood, who also survived with minor injuries, told the Reuters news agency. "He especially had a lot of responsibility so not a lot of time to sit around and philosophise."

Ms Farel, now in her late 80s, has told French media legal action against the priest would have been "against our principles", though some accounts suggest the Mormons were reluctant to upset the Catholic church or French government.

Contacted via an American missionary active in the Bordeaux area now, Ms Farel declined to say more. A French couple who also knew Mr Romney in the 1960s have said they received messages from aides to the Republicans' presumptive candidate asking them to give no further interviews about the accident.

André and Paulette Salarnier still recall the delight Mr Romney took in their home-made coq au vin.

Otherwise, talking to the French newspaper Le Monde, they restricted themselves to recalling Mr Romney as an "outgoing and charming boy who spoke French almost without accent".

Ms Farel told the Reuters news agency he had virtues that would make him an exemplary head of state: "He wouldn't lie, he wouldn't cheat. That's something that doesn't come around that often."

Mr Romney's 20-month stay in France, from July 1966, took him in the footsteps of his father, George, who also worked as a Mormon missionary in Europe, in his case London and Scotland.

France was considered unpromising territory, traditionally Catholic but increasingly secular, but Mitt Romney won a respectable number of recruits - he says between 10 and 20 - for the faith.

"If he converted that many people in France then, I'd say it was good going," said a missionary facing similar resistance today. "It's not easy."

The early charm detected by the Salarniers was helpful in getting him out of a few scrapes when, instead of merely having doors slammed in his face, he came up against snarling dogs or shotguns.

As David Wood told Reuters: "We spent a lot of time going from door-to-door … it was tough going. It solidified his beliefs in the church, certainly gave him ample opportunity to develop leadership skills, skills in motivating people."

The Mormons, officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, number about 36,000 members in modern France. Mr Romney worked in Nantes - where he paid with a bruised jaw for going to the aid of female missionaries being pestered by a group of rugby players - and Le Havre as well as Bordeaux and the capital.

Just as the road accident left a lasting effect - Mr Romney initially found it hard to resume driving - the French experience made him a rarity among potential presidents.

If the Republic convention in Tampa, Florida confirms him as candidate in late August, and the people of the US prefer him to Barack Obama in November, he will be the first French-speaking president since the Roosevelts.

With plenty of other issues to deal with, from criticism of "racist" remarks about Palestinians on the Israeli leg of a gaffe-strewn international tour to persistent questions concerning his tax affairs, it is a linguistic ability he may choose not to promote too heavily.

Mr Romney is a natural conservative, once joining a counter-demonstration against a student sit-in when at Stanford University in California. Later he was appalled by the disruptive 1968 revolt known as the "Paris Spring".

But Le Monde warned that French connections were not always seen in the US as a quality: "In the America of 2012, references to France, a symbol of non-alignment and social unrest, have the effect of a red rag to some voters.

"Mitt Romney, accused by his Republican rivals of being a liberal disguised as a conservative, is an ideal target. No wonder, they say: he lived in France."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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