Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
French Ambassador’s Residence
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Speaks in French.)
(In English) And it’s wonderful to see so many friends here this afternoon. The rain is about to come down on us. I will do my best to be brief.
But the individual who first had the idea for the statue was actually a history professor and a jurist from the College de France, Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye. Early in his studies, Laboulaye became enamored with the American Revolution and the country’s experiment in democracy, which he saw as a model for France.
I hope everyone else is getting protected too. (Laughter.) It’s very unfair.
But when a coup led to a return to the French monarchy, a climate of political repression and self-censorship set in, and Laboulaye stopped writing and lecturing on America.
Two events rekindled his flame.
The first was the American Civil War, which Laboulaye saw as an existential threat to the world’s greatest example of self-government.
The second was a visit in 1861 from an American diplomat and anti-slavery advocate, John Bigelow, who had been dispatched by President Lincoln to drum up support for the North, at a time when both the French Government and public largely sympathized with the South.
Bigelow wanted Laboulaye to write and speak out more for the Union cause and against slavery, and brought along resources from the State Department to sponsor the effort. Laboulaye refused the support, the resources, but he told Bigelow, and I quote, that he’d “be charmed to serve a cause which is the cause of all the friends of liberty.”
And he did serve the cause. He churned out articles, pamphlets, books on how slavery threatened the ideals at the core of America’s democracy. People crammed into his lectures, which, like his writing, was impassioned, persuasive. And not only for people in France, but for Americans too. Arguably no individual did more to win French support for the Union.
Of course, even if America was his subject, Laboulaye was never writing only about the United States.
He was also making the case implicitly for French democracy, and for what he saw as the universal aspiration of human beings to be free to chart their own course. As he wrote, and I quote, “One is never cured of a yearning for freedom.” He saw these principles as a joint heritage, French and American.
And, in a way, that’s how it’s always been for our two nations. Our revolutions were over a dozen years apart, but the trajectories of our experiments in self-government – and their shared foundation in freedom and in human rights – they’ve always been intertwined. Throughout our history, in many ways we’ve been mirrors to one another, holding up not only our greatest achievements but also our greatest flaws.
The same is true for Liberty That Lights the World. For as long as she’s stood, she’s forced us to reconcile with the gap between our ideals and our reality; between who we are and who we strive to be.
Including the struggle for equality. An editorial published in a black-owned newspaper days after the statue was unveiled captured this sentiment, and I quote:
“Shove the statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the same ‘liberty’ of this country…make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the south to earn a respectable living, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged.”
Yet in a way, that’s exactly what the statue was intended to do: to project outwards and inwards our values and where we’re falling short.
That’s the journey of America, that’s the journey of France, that’s the journey of all free democracies: not the perfect embodiment of principled self-government, but the perpetual effort to fix our flaws and, as we like to say in the United States, “to form a more perfect Union.”
In this journey, the United States has no greater or more enduring ally than France. It’s impossible to imagine the success of revolutions and emergence of our democracies without the people of our nations believing – and being willing to give their lives – for similar ideals.
From the Revolutionary War to World War II; from the fight against slavery to the fight against fascism. We see it today, too, in the joint effort to tackle the climate crisis, to beat back this deadly pandemic, to remedy deep inequality. And Jean-Yves captured it so well.
It’s the reason that France and the United States are working more closely than ever to lead our allies and partners around the world to defend and strengthen our democracies, whether that’s by revitalizing or modernizing NATO; deepening our cooperation with the European Union; working together at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions to uphold the international rules-based order that’s been the basis for unprecedented security and prosperity since 1945.
It’s why we’re working together to push back against economic coercion and promote new global norms to address 21st century threats such as cyber attacks and disinformation.
And it’s why we continue to invest in efforts to advance freedom and human rights around the world, including safeguarding a free, independent press and shoring up the rule of law, because our shared experience has taught us that these institutions are some of the best guardrails of democracy, and that every nation needs help along the way.
As Jean-Yves mentioned, before this ceremony we had the immense honor of seeing four American veterans of World War Two receive la Legion d’honneur. One of them, William Allison, was just 17 years old when he enlisted to serve. When he and his battalion arrived in Marseille in 1944, a Frenchwoman who had come out to welcome them exclaimed, “My god, they’re children.”
But these young Americans would go on to help liberate France, fight valiantly along the Maginot Line, and clear deadly mines that allowed the French people to return to their homes. To William, the most gratifying moment of his service came when he freed a group of French prisoners from a Nazi labor camp near Munich. In other words, his greatest achievement was restoring freedom. Liberte.
Liberte and egalite – they translate very easily into English. But there’s no single word in English – brotherhood, sisterhood, solidarity, fraternity – that I think perfectly captures the essence of fraternite.
But I think it’s fair to say that fraternite is the word that best defines the relationship between our people, and our ongoing struggle to improve our democracies and advance the ideals embodied in the light that shines the world — at home and around the world.
So may she continue remind us of the principles we share and the work that remains to live up to them. And may we never be cured of yearning for freedom.
Thank you. (Applause.)