Mitt Romney waxed eloquent in French as he promoted the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, calling the two years he spent as a young man in France an “enriching experience.”
But now that he’s running for president of the United States, Romney doesn’t talk a lot about his time as a Mormon missionary in France.
“Voilà,” says Philippe Brillaut, as he points to the site of what would be France’s first Mormon temple.
Brillaut is the mayor of Le Chesnay, which lies just outside of Paris and next to Versailles, and can point to Louis XIV’s chateau from his office.
He says a petition against the pending Mormon temple is causing him real headaches.
“People are wary of the Mormons because they’re rigorous, organized, and they have money,” Brillaut says. “People are scared of organized groups that have money because that means they have the means to achieve their goals.”
He says many people also think the Mormons are a cult.
Romney in France
When Romney arrived in France to do his mission work in 1966, many had never heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Nicole Bacharan, now a political scientist, was one who had. She says her parents used to invite Romney to dinner. Though she was only a girl at the time, Bacharan says she remembers him well.
“He was fun, he was smart, he was quick,” she recalls. “And he was always surrounded by an adoring crowd of friends. You know, other young missionaries who always said, ‘This young guy is going to be, one day, the president of the United States.'”
Bacharan notes that Romney was in France when it erupted into chaos in May 1968. Student demonstrators set fire to cars and hurled cobblestones at riot police. Romney has said he had a firsthand view of that very volatile time.
“He probably had a very difficult time understanding what happened in ’68,” Bacharan says. “Because it was very foreign for [someone from a] conservative family and a young man coming from Michigan, the son of a governor.”
Christian Euvrard, a prominent French Mormon, says things have changed a lot in France since Romney was there.
Then, the church was seen as American. Today, he says, France has 36,000 Mormons.
“Certainly in the ’60s, you would go in a restaurant and say, ‘We don’t take wine.’ Oh, they would look at you in a strange way,” Euvrard says. “But today, it’s much, much, much easier. We’re not as different, in a sense, today than maybe we would have been looked at in the ’60s.”
Casey Coleman, 20, is a Mormon missionary from Annapolis, Md. He practices the French introduction he uses when he goes door to door, as Romney did, telling people about the Mormon faith.
He says being a missionary is a life-changing experience.
“Being thrown out into a country where you don’t speak the language, and where you’re just with no one that you know,” Coleman says, “You’re kind of forced to grow up a little bit.
Romney may have had to mature more than he wanted.
He was involved in a fatal car accident that killed the wife of the mission head.
Romney was driving when a drunk driver plowed into their car. He was badly injured, but recovered quickly and went back to being a missionary known for his charm and winning ways.
Now, on the campaign trail, the memory Romney shares from that time is of primitive French toilets. And he often disparages France and Europe as he attacks President Obama.
Obama “wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity,” Romney said recently, to cheering crowds.
Nicole Bacharan says she doesn’t understand that.
“He had some families who really liked him and welcomed him and he spoke French perfectly, I mean, very well at least. And his trashing Europe the way he does it is a bit painful,” she says.
If Romney does make it to the White House, he may have to start talking about Europe with a little more finesse.