What's become of the spirit of '81?

Mention the French Riviera and most people will conjure up images of le casino in Monte Carlo, le port in Saint Tropez, la Croisette in Cannes, or la Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Less obvious are visions of Grasse, a small town tucked away in the hinterland, a 30-minute drive north of Nice, and proudly described by the locals as the capital of the French perfume-making industry. From a historical perspective, the town’s claim to fame lies elsewhere, more particularly in François Joseph Paul de Grasse’s decisive participation in the American Revolutionary War against the British along with Comte de Rochambeau, Admiral d’Estaing and Lafayette.

De Grasse, who was born and raised in nearby Bar-sur-Loup, is indeed best remembered in South-Eastern France for defeating the British Fleet in the Battle of Chesapeake in September 1781. De Grasse’s victory in the Bay on board le Ville de Paris that year conclusively cut off supplies from the forces led by General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, contributed to Cornwallis’s surrender to General Washington’s Continental Army, and ultimately paved the way for British initiatives to negotiate an end to the war and, afterwards, for the adoption by the newly-created United States of America of a Constitution strictly limiting government and uniquely experimenting with individual freedom and responsibility.

As a sign of gratitude for his services during the American Revolutionary War, François Joseph Paul de Grasse was later made a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, the organization founded in 1783 to promote the ideals and fellowship of all those who had gallantly fought for freedom during the war. The original copy of de Grasse’s Cincinnati membership certificate can be seen in the small museum dedicated to the memory of the French admiral in Grasse.

Ominously, the museum was poorly attended when I went there last October. Small wonder. A recent poll conducted in France by IFOP and published in Paris Match on November 5th, 2009 shows that 82% of French people still enthusiastically support Barack Obama’s big-government agenda one year after his election as President of the United States.

Sadly, at least on this side of the Atlantic, the spirit of ’81 as embodied by Comte de Grasse more than two hundred years ago appears to have fatally faded away.