A Tale of Two Cities

This celebration of all things Gallic in a city where two years ago Congress banned the phrase “French fries” from its cafeteria menus might raise a few eyebrows–especially as it’s coinciding with a sudden White House rush toward rapprochement with France, in part to solidify support for U.S. policies in the Middle East. Could the same Rovian puppeteers suspected of planting friendly “reporters” in press briefings and closing doors to presidential town halls on dissenters also be jingling the strings behind D.C.’s new pro-French P.R. blitz?

As it happens, tracing the festival’s origins reveals less sinister forces at work. It all began one afternoon in the fall of 2003, in a cozy 4th-floor conference room in the downtown offices of the city’s hospitality industry association, the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation. Huddled around the table that day were a dozen directors and marketing gurus representing the city’s premiere cultural landmarks, from the National Gallery of Art to the Shakespeare Theater to the Kennedy Center. This group, christened Washington’s “cultural steering committee,” had first convened at the behest of Mayor Anthony Williams in the weeks after 9/11, when fear of future attacks and locked doors at such popular sites as the White House had transformed downtown into a tourism ghost-town. The committee’s mission was to showcase the city’s oft-overlooked cultural attractions and lure back sightseers, with their fanny packs and disposable dollars. They had already orchestrated, in the summer of 2002, a successful citywide promotion entitled “Jacqueline Kennedy’s Washington,” weaving events around a Corcoran Gallery exhibit of the former first lady’s enviable wardrobe, and tours of her Georgetown homes (local restaurants caught the spirit, offering such specials as cream-filled meringues shaped like pillbox hats).

At this particular monthly meeting, the committee’s convener, a feisty local historian named Kathy Smith, asked the members to whip out their exhibit calendars and scan for lucky coincidences that might suggest future festival motifs. The National Gallery of Art’s formidable press chief Debra Ziska announced that a renowned expert on Parisian history had agreed to curate the most extensive exhibit ever staged of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, set to open in late March 2005. Heads nodded, duly impressed. The representative from the National Museum of Women in the Arts chimed in that a show featuring French impressionist Berthe Morisot would also run that spring. And the Shakespeare Theater’s director revealed that during the same season curtains would raise on Alfred de Musset’s classic French drama, Lorenzaccio.

To Ziska, the opportunity was obvious–a few major exhibits and a French play, each of which required months of wrangling with directors, art collectors, and international loan agents to stage, were coinciding, and during spring’s tourist high-season to boot: This surely called for a French-themed fte. As she recalls, “I proposed it, and people pretty much jumped on board.”

An ideal festival motif, after all, boasts a few blockbuster shows to entice visitors to Washington, but also allows ample opportunity for other galleries to participate by fashioning related exhibits, hopefully giving visitors enough reason to stick around that extra day in Washington. And what museum doesn’t already have some French art in its collection? From the Corcoran Gallery, with its restored 18th-century Parisian parlor room, to the Textile Museum, proud owner of French paisley patterns, to the Spy Museum, which houses artifacts on Cardinal Richelieu’s espionage network, nearly every gallery could, with a rummage through its closets, devise relevant exhibits.

Then someone raised an uncomfortable topic: Would current political tensions with France dampen the festival’s appeal? This gave some members pause; a few awkward glances were exchanged. Then Smith rallied the group, reassuring them, as she recalls, that “politics shouldn’t be an obstacle to promoting culture.” Drawing on her knowledge of the city’s history (she’s the author of a book, a musical, and high-school curriculum on the annals of municipal D.C.), Smith extolled what perfect sense it made to celebrate the French in Washington: “We’re a city designed by a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant. We have public parks and boulevards like Paris. Washington really looks like a very European city.”

Over the next few weeks, the committee tested the waters, floating the idea by local hotel and restaurant managers. The response was enthusiastic and encouraging. Hotel sales teams eagerly devised such confections as the Fairmont’s “French poodle package” (a hotel room comes with croissants, caf au lait, and a pink plush poodle toy), and K Street restaurant chefs swooned for an excuse to fortify their menus with escargot, filet mignon, and kir royale. And with that, the festival was on.

Over at the French embassy, the press office, only recently besieged with indignant phone calls about the “axis of weasels,” received an unexpected, yet immensely welcome call. Smith’s committee wanted help planning and promoting French cultural events in Washington. Magnifique! The embassy’s cultural attach, Roland Celette, started speed-dialing Paris to schedule cabaret performances, cinema screenings, and theater performances. To publicize the festival, he dusted off his mailing list of known Francophiles (if you’ve attended an event at the embassy before, you’re likely on it).

If word had leaked earlier to red-state GOP congressmen inclined to thunder against taxpayer-supported institutions advancing the interests of cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys, this coalition of the willing, the French embassy and Washington’s municipal marketers, might have sparked a local culture war.

But before the festival brochures had come back from the printer, as luck would have it the White House had a change of heart. In early February, a few weeks before the curtain raised on “Paris on the Potomac,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to the French capitol to accept kisses on her hand from President Jacques Chirac. Later that month, Bush dined with Chirac in Brussels, where, without a smirk, he rechristened potato rods “French fries.” Suddenly, it became politically acceptable again in Washington to raise a glass of pinot noir to the French. In fact, the only minor political intrigue has come in the form of a few slightly jealous calls to the French embassy, from other Washington-based diplomats seeking rainmaking tips to bring about an upcoming London (or Madrid or Berlin) on the Potomac.

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