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US Democratic Candidate Kerry Finds Overwhelming Support in French Town - 2004-03-01

Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry continues to lead the field of contenders for the party's nomination to run against President Bush in November. There is one place where he seems to have the full support of one town, but unfortunately, for him, it is not in any of the states voting in primary elections. It is not in the United States at all. That town is Saint-Briac sur Mer, in northwestern France, where the Massachusetts senator spent summers as a child and where the town mayor happens to be Mr. Kerry's cousin.

There are no presidential stump speeches or get-out-the-vote campaigns in this 16th-century village, hugging the rocky shores of France's Brittany province. The few Kerry-for-President stickers that exist here are stashed in St. Briac's tiny town hall.

But along the narrow lanes lined with thick stone houses and apple trees, residents like 29-year-old Stephanie Lagond are quietly rooting for the Democrat front-runner.

Mrs. Lagond says she does not like President Bush's politics, a sentiment echoed by many French, who were generally against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Mrs. Lagond says she is now hearing much about Senator Kerry, who also voted to support the war.

But she says he seems quite nice. Besides, Mrs. Lagond added, he has a French Connection.

That connection is mainly to St. Briac, a village of 2,000 inhabitants, where the Massachusetts Democrat spent summers with his relatives as a child. Mr. Kerry's most prominent local relative is Saint-Briac's 58-year-old mayor, Brice Lalonde, who is Mr. Kerry's first cousin. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lalonde supports Mr. Kerry's bid for the U.S. presidency.

"Well, because I know him a little, [I know] he has a clear view of the rest of the world," he said.

A former French environment minister, who helped found Friends of the Earth, an international environmental nonprofit organization, Mr. Lalonde also believes Mr. Kerry's environmental policies are better than those of President Bush. Overall, he thinks, his cousin would make a good president.

But with icy relations between France and the United States only beginning to melt since the Iraq war, Mayor Lalonde appears eager to play down Mr. Kerry's French connections. He says that when the two cousins occasionally meet, usually in Paris or Washington, D.C., they never talk about politics.

Nor can Saint-Briac's longtime residents remember much about the American boy who spent summers here 50 years ago. Most, however, have not forgotten Mr. Kerry's maternal grandparents, who settled in Saint-Briac during the 1920s.

Mr. Kerry's grandfather, James Grant Forbes, was a successful international lawyer and banker who was born in Shanghai. His grandmother, Margaret Winthrop Forbes, traced her lineage back to the first governor of Massachusetts.

The couple raised 11 children, whose offspring are now scattered across Europe and North America. Today, only two - Mr. Lalonde and an uncle - remain in Saint-Briac.

At Saint-Briac's retirement home, 95-year-old Pauline Briand remembers Mrs. Forbes, who ate English biscuits, spoke fluent French and walked a pair of dogs daily through the village.

Mrs. Briand remembers dark days during World War II, when Nazis occupied Saint-Briac. Mrs. Forbes used to come to her family's farm, she says, and collect milk. Mrs. Briand says she was very kind.

When Nazi troops occupied St. Briac, they destroyed the Forbes home. Undaunted, Mr. Kerry's grandfather rebuilt the rambling estate, which became a hub for the far-flung clan.

That included young Mr. Kerry, son of a U.S. diplomat, who was living in Europe at the time. Among the cousins, Mr. Lalonde said, John Kerry was the favorite. "He was older than I was, so organizing all the games. Capture the flag, kick the can, tennis, bicycling, going fishing, etcetera," he said.

Mr. Kerry is hardly St. Briac's only claim to fame. Prominent 19th-century French artists lived here. So did an exiled Romanov grand duke, who proclaimed himself czar.

Then there is Mr. Lalonde, who looks nothing like his tall, American cousin. Yet Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lalonde followed oddly similar career paths.

As Mr. Kerry made a name for himself as a Vietnam war hero, and later a critic of the war, and moved into politics in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Lalonde made his reputation in the environmental movement and in the French government.

Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lalonde ran for president. But that was back in 1981 and he captured only four percent of the vote in France.

In 1995, he became mayor of Saint-Briac. Today, he juggles municipal duties with his work as an environmental consultant.

Mr. Kerry has not returned to St. Briac in about 20 years. If his cousin becomes president, Mr. Lalonde fears Mr. Kerry will be too busy to keep up family contacts.

Mr. Kerry appears to have an easy majority in Saint-Briac, maybe even unanimous support. It will not do him any good in the race for the presidential nomination, but if he wins, talk will likely switch from Mr. Kerry's French Connection to Saint-Briac's American Connection.