Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

5 reasons Philly has a French fetish

May 5, 2011 by Karen Gross


1. The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts —which ran through May 1—had a French twist.

There was a huge, illuminated Eiffel Tower in the lobby of our Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. On April 30, a Parisian street fair took Broad Street by storm.

2. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is modeled on Paris's most famous boulevard

Perhaps the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would be a more fitting fairgrounds for PIFA's street festival. This wide boulevard was, after all, designed by French urban planner Jacques Gréber to resemble the Champs-Élysées.

3. Ben Franklin, Philadelphia’s beloved Founding Father, got along famously with the French.

As America’s first ambassador to that country, he was tasked with winning support for the Revolutionary cause. Not only did the capable diplomat do so, he ended up settling in a Parisian suburb for nearly 10 years.

According to biographer Claude-Anne Lopez, Franklin “was temperamentally suited for France. The streak of irreverence that ran through his entire life found a congenial reception in Paris, as did his love of laughter and desire to amuse. He did not shock the French, nor did his interest in women, which was considered perfectly normal.”

In a gossipy Time magazine article called “Why He Was a Babe Magnet,” Lopez described Franklin’s “Parisian soul mates,” Mesdames Brillon and Helvetius, in greater detail. We certainly didn’t learn this stuff in American history class.

4. Gouverneur Morris

Franklin wasn’t the only Founding Father susceptible to France’s charms. Gouverneur Morris—the peg-legged, outspoken constitutional framer credited with producing the document’s preamble and final draft—was there when the French Revolution began and served as minister to the nation after Thomas Jefferson. Morris’ diaries chronicle this tumultuous period in French history, as well as his legendary romantic exploits.

5. The most significant bond between America and France is our intertwined national revolutions.

Not long after the ink dried on our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, the French people rose against their monarchy in a parallel struggle for “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” Ironically, France’s support of our cause had plunged the country into financial straits—serving as a catalyst for their own political upheaval, which in another twist of fate helped divide Americans. As the French Revolution devolved into terror and dictatorship, Americans split into Jeffersonians and Federalists based in part on their differing views of events there.

Eventually, France took shape as a democratic republic. However, France has adopted several constitutions over the years. The current Constitution of France was adopted in 1958 and amended nearly 20 times since—most recently in 2008 by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Considered a hybrid presidential-parliamentary governing system, France’s government is (like ours) divided into three branches: executive (including both the president and prime minister), legislative (including a bicameral Parliament), and judicial (including the Court of Cassation, Council of State and Constitutional Council). The French preamble, which endures today, recalls the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789—drawn from the same Enlightenment principles that inspired the Declaration of Independence.

The history of modern France and America suggests a longstanding, if volatile, affair. Philadelphia, as America’s birthplace, bears the mark of this relationship—leading up to our recent PIFA arts festival. We may passionately disagree at times and spitefully claim our “Freedom” fries. But if even Philly's own ?uestlove (of The Roots)  celebrated Paris in a PIFA concert, it’s time to remember and appreciate our nations’ shared roots.


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