The Franco Vote: When French was the Language of Politics

This year, bilingual campaigning seems to have come of age, with most of the candidates for the presidential nominations producing materials in both English and Spanish. It’s a recognition that the Latino vote is becoming increasingly important, as that population grows as a proportion of the electorate. The success of these efforts has varied somewhat – some candidates had the advantage of being genuinely bilingual (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both have Cuban-American parents, and Jeb Bush’s wife Columba was born in Mexico), while others have been accused of “Hispandering,” or patronizing Latino communities. Gaffes have included Hillary Clinton’s efforts to compare herself to an abuela, or Latina grandmother, and Donald Trump’s statement that he “loves Hispanics,” as evidenced by his enjoyment of the taco bowls at Trump Tower.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith Campaigning in New Hampshire, 1964.  Margaret Chase Smith Library/Maine Memory Network.

Senator Margaret Chase Smith Campaigning in New Hampshire, 1964. Margaret Chase Smith Library/Maine Memory Network.

Almost a century ago, the Franco-American community had similar complaints. “Who is that feller who once a year, come shake the Frenchmans by the hand?” begins a poem published in Le Signal, a Lewiston, Maine, newspaper, in 1928. The piece, titled Monsieur le Candidat,[1] pokes fun at, and despairs of, the politicians who campaign in neighborhoods like Lewiston’s Little Canada for the Franco-American vote, perhaps stumbling through a word or two of French, never to be seen again once they are elected. It’s a phenomenon many Latinos might be familiar with today.

Monsieur le Candidat might be more reflective of local Lewiston politics than state or national campaigns in 1928. The governor at the time was Owen Brewster, who had been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and, as I wrote in another blog post, would contest future election results by attempting to overturn Franco votes in northern Maine towns.  However, courting the Franco vote wasn’t restricted to local politics in cities like Lewiston with a large Franco population, and at different times, politicians of all stripes appealed to French-speaking voters in Maine and elsewhere.

In his 2014 re-election efforts, Maine’s current governor, Paul LePage made some direct appeals to Franco-American voters, producing materials in French “Notre Gouverneur”, and appearing at events like the La Kermesse festival in Biddeford. He has even occasionally made addresses in French – inside the legislative chamber, on the state’s annual Franco-American Day, and on visits to Québec. (It’s also worth noting, however, that he provoked anger from some in the Franco community for the comment in an election debate that “even a Frenchman could be taught to cool down”). LePage’s use of his French-Canadian heritage as an asset is certainly not unique – many state legislators proudly bear their heritage, and former Congressman Mike Michaud was a supporter of Franco-American communities in a number of ways.

An earlier Franco-American official elected statewide, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, didn’t exactly keep their Franco-American heritage a secret, but it wasn’t seen as an asset for her campaign. Smith, who was first elected to Congress in 1940, is best known for her denunciations of the McCarthy hearings into “un-American activities” – and that era of Cold War suspicion was not the time to tout one’s foreign connections.

James G. Blaine, c1870. Library of Congress image

James G. Blaine, c1870. Library of Congress image

The earliest attempt on record of an attempt to win over the Francophone voters of Maine appears to be a visit by Emmons Blaine, the son of Maine Republican king-maker James G. Blaine, to Madawaska in the week before the statewide elections of 1879 (at that time, Maine held its state elections in September). A notice in the New York Tribune of 1879 simply states:







“Mr Emmons Blaine, the second son of the Senator, who graduated last year at Harvard and is now studying law, shows a decided taste and aptitude for political work. He is the right-hand man of his father in the labors of the central committee, and is doing some very creditable stump-speaking. Next week he is going away up to the valley of the upper St. Johns [sic], a journey involving a ride of nearly one hundred miles through a wilderness, to visit some French Canadian settlements and speak to the natives in their own language. This venturesome experience, it is said, was never tried before in a Maine canvass.”

The journey from Augusta to Madawaska is closer to 300 miles than 100, making this journey all the more remarkable. There is a suggestion that Blaine learned his French at Harvard, which may not have endeared him much to the Acadian French-speakers in Madawaska. It’s also worth noting that Acadians had lived in the area for at least as long as Maine had been a state, so it had taken more than half a century for someone to solicit their votes in their own language.

The local newspaper, the Aroostook Times published no details of the visit by the younger Blaine, only reporting that he stopped in Houlton, where the paper was published, before travelling on to Madawaska.[2]  Whatever Blaine said in support of the state’s Republicans apparently did little to sway the Acadians of Aroostook County (the New Orleans Democrat snidely noted that “wherever he went the Democratic majority increased”). The official returns show that the Republican candidate for governor, Daniel F. Davis, gathered less than 10% of the vote in Madawaska itself, and did similarly poorly in other heavily-Acadian towns like Fort Kent (15%), and Van Buren (16%). These towns went for Alonzo Garcelon (coincidentally a descendent of French Huguenots), who was the candidate of the Greenback Party, which appealed to rural farmers through its advocacy of the use of paper currency instead of the gold standard.

Blaine’s lack of success in courting the Franco-American vote is perhaps an early indication of the alignment of Franco-Americans with the Democratic Party. By 1879, Blaine’s name was synonymous with a proposed constitutional amendment to ban public funding of religious schools. Ironically, Blaine’s mother and sister were Catholics, and his amendment was probably meant as a means of diffusing the “schools question.” Nonetheless, it hurt him greatly among Catholics, and probably cost him the 1884 presidential election.

By the 1890s, the association with the Democrats with Catholic voters was well-entrenched, and in the 1892 Presidential Election, appeals were made directly to French-Canadian immigrants, via pamphlets produced in French, attacking the administration of Republican Benjamin Harrison for “attempts to destroy the Catholic schools among the Indians.” The pamphlets may have been the idea of Honore Mercier, a former Liberal premier of Quebec, who was at that time a leader in Boston’s Franco-American community. L’Electeur, a liberal paper in Quebec run by a friend of Mercier’s, also endorsed Cleveland, on the basis of his opposition to tariffs against Canada.

Robert F. Broussard, c1910. Library of Congress image.

Robert F. Broussard, c1910. Library of Congress image.

The politics of language also had a way of bringing together French-speakers from across the country, Robert F. Broussard, a long-time senator from Louisiana, was a native Francophone and was reportedly “of great service to the Democratic Party” for his ability to speak French. Along with fellow Congressional Democrats Garland Dupré and Arsène Pujo, Broussard would campaign in New England to gather Franco-American votes there.

One recent revelation shows that while French might have fallen out of favor in American politics, it never completely went away. In 2011, when French politician Christine Lagarde was appointed to head the International Monetary Fund, it came to light that she had interned with Maine senator Bill Cohen for a summer while she was a high school exchange student in Maryland. Her task? To respond to Senator Cohen’s constituents who had written him – en français.





[1] The poem is preserved in the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

[2] The Aroostook Times is not available online. I accessed the microfilm at the Maine State Library and found no other mentions of Blaine’s visit. The Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, a pro-Republican paper, while mentioning numerous campaign meetings in its pages from across the state, also apparently overlooked this event. This could be because both papers lacked French-speaking reporters, or it may be evidence of bias against the states’ Francophones.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.