Rediscovering the French

HollandeGiven France’s long connections with Australia and the Pacific, it was surprising that just last week Francois Hollande became the first French President to visit Australia. The French, of course, played a central role in Australia’s colonisation. It was Bougainville’s description of Australia in 1768, as a ‘magnificent country, so rich in promise of wealth and fertility’, that inspired successive French and English Pacific expeditions – including those of James Cook.

At a lunch in Canberra on November 19 in honour of M. Hollande’s visit, we heard much of World War One and the sacrifice of so many Australian soldiers on the Western Front. In the aftermath, Victorian school children each donated a penny to rebuild the village school at Villers-Bretonneux. Some 90 years later, the French schoolchildren raised similar funds to help rebuild the Strathewen Primary School, destroyed in Black Saturday.

In an audience dominated by dark-suited diplomats, public servants and military personnel, perhaps only the smattering of academics and creative artists recalled the vital role French science and arts have played in Australia and the Pacific.

It was left to M. Hollande to remind us of the small, but influential role of French settlers in Australia in cuisine, design, viticulture, the arts and sciences. No mention was made of the nuclear testing which have cooled Pacific relations with France over recent decades.

As our third closest neighbour (in the form of New Caledonia), it is surprising that our links with France are often forgotten. But for our French visitor and political hosts alike, it seemed that future connections – sporting, cultural, educational and economic – were the focus. Such connections, surely, can only be built on an honest and unbiased examination of our shared heritage – in peace as well as war, for better and worse.

Flinders University writer, researcher and editor Dr Danielle Clode was an invited guest at a luncheon in honour of the French President in Canberra. With funding from the Australia Council of the Arts, she is currently working on a book on the voyage of St Alloüarn, who claimed the West coast of Australia for France in 1772.

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