The Importance of the Battle of the Capes to the Sharing of a Franco-American History in Grasse

As Americans living in France since the 1990s, we have long had an interest in observing  where the parallel histories of the two countries converge, and especially where they have a distinctly local connection.  A prime example of this happens at an annual event very close to our home at Villa Ndio.  World War II memorials to fallen soldiers and resistance fighters can be found in every village in the area, and one of these happens to be on the edge of a traffic circle at the entry to the village of Peymeinade. The traffic circle itself happens to be named the “Carrefour de la Liberté”!

Every year in mid-August, we appreciate participating in the commemoration at this memorial of the liberation of France in August 1944. As we have come to learn, the liberation of this part of France by the Allied forces (US, Canada and Britain) with the Free French, was complementary to the major Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. This second invasion, launched on 15 August 1944 from the Mediterranean Sea, is known as  “Operation Dragoon”.  As Peymeinade, the village closest to Villa Ndio, was liberated on 23 August 1944, there are typical wreath-laying ceremonies at Peymeinade’s memorial , carried out by various elected and other local dignitaries, accompanied by a festive parade of historic American jeeps, trucks and tanks – and lots of flags.

Check our separate reporting and photographic displays on this Peymeinade event here. It also includes our coverage of a similar event each 24 August, the date when the Allied forces liberated the town of Grasse itself. (Other events, by the way, are held along the coast and in neighboring villages, but our focus has been on the events in Peymeinade and Grasse, where we have a personal connection.)

Another prime example of our shared Franco-American history is  something the American participants call Grasse Naval Day or, as it is described in French, “la Journée Franco-Amàricaine de la Marine”. This uniquely Grasse-oriented  Franco-American  commemoration has also become part of our annual repertoire.  It is typically held on a wide, open plaza, known as the Place Honoré Cresp, overlooking the Mediterannean Sea on the third Sunday in September. The purpose of this event is to honor the French role way back in history – in support of the American Revolution that led to the formation of the United States of America. As it so happened, there is a direct link to Grasse in this long-ago event.

It was a naval battle in the Chesapeake Bay that clinched the defeat of the British in the Battle of Yorktown, ending the British resistance to American independence. The Battle of the Capes, as it is commonly known, was between French and British naval forces (no Americans there at all), with a definitive win for the French side on 5 September 1781. This guaranteed that the British were ultimately encircled by a combination of American and French land forces in Yorktown, with no avenue to retreat. The British were obliged to surrender, thus ending the military resistance to American independence..

As Americans, we have come to know about the military prowess of the French at Yorktown, primarily through historical accounts of the remarkable exploits of the Marquis de Lafayette – who has acquired particular historic renown through the years, most recently in the popular Broadway musical of “Hamilton”. This may well be due to the fact that Lafayette happened to live longer than any of the other major French figures in the American Revolution. He is, of course,  known for more than his military exploits, since he was instrumental in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man during the French Revolution as a direct adaption of the American Declaration of Independence. And perhaps more notably, he was the only surviving French hero of the American Revolution to return for a glorious tour of the United States 50 years after independence. We surmise that more American towns and streets and parks are named in his honor than any other French historical figure .

But it was another Frenchman, the Amiral de Grasse (aka François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse) who commanded the French naval forces in a battle leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. And it is this fellow, the Amiral de Grasse, that George Washington himself came to recognize as the “artisan” of American independence.

Yes indeed, right here in the town of Grasse, France, the Amiral de Grasse is honored every year (along with all the other French sailors and soldiers, of course) for delivering the fateful defeat of the British in the Battle of the Capes. Grasse itself might not be a naval town, although one does have a stunning view from the  plaza overlooking the sea (described by the French as the “balcon” of Grasse). And it has produced its share of naval heroes, with the Amiral de Grasse at the top of the list. To that effect, there is a magnificant statue of the Admiral at the Place Honore Cresp, situated right where one has that stunning view of the sea.  One should note that there are two copies of this statue, one is prominently displayed in Grasse and the other can be found nestled in town square in Bar sur Loup, a small hillside hamlet just to the east of Grasse, where the Admiral was born..

Every year, then, usually on the third Sunday in September (instead of the 5th of September – or even the 11th of September, which happens to be the day in 1722 when François Joseph Paul was born), presumably because everyone is back from their summer holidays by then, there are speeches and naval bands and wreath-laying ceremonies at both locations. The more elaborate ceremonies – or at least the largest number of participants – are in Grasse, where the event is typically preceded with a mass in the local cathedral. (Choosing in our own secular American way, we have not attended the mass for this or any of the other memorial events in Grasse. We think it is a bit odd, that the French secular tradition (“laicité”) doesn’t apply here, but that is another subject.) The statues serve as focal points for celebrating the Battle of the Capes but also the history of Franco-American cooperation over the years.

The most elaborate  Franco-American Naval Day that we have experienced was in 2019.  As noted in the photo below, this one attracted the head of the US Sixth Fleet (based in Naples, Italy), the Rear Admiral, along with a US Navy band which played in parallel with a French navy band.  We welcomed the canopies protecting us, the bands, the crack troops and the speakers from the chilly and rainy day. Note the photo of dignitaries here, and see a complete photo essay of this 2019 event here.

On this latest Grasse Naval Day of 19 September 2021, the main weather effect was a strong wind sweeping up from the sea and across the open plaza of Honoré Cresp. The blue carpet laid out for dignitaries to lay wreaths at the statue of the Amiral de Grasse was repeatedly blown into disarray. It was eventually brought under control by positioning heavy planters along the corners and edges of the carpet. But one of the specially erected canopies to protect the French naval band (no American one this year) and French crack troops from the hot Riviera sun (no rain this year) simply collapsed in the strong wind. So all of the canopies were quickly dismantled before the beginning of the official ceremony. No one seemed to suffer, though, since temperatures remained quite mild in the wind.

We hesitated to attend the event this year because of a recent malfunction in Franco-American diplomacy. In fact, a similar event honoring the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes at the French Embassy in Washington, DC was abruptly cancelled in protest to American bumbling of a surprise announcement indirectly affected the French. This was the announcement by President Biden on 16 September launching a new Indo-Pacific strategic alliance between the US, Britain and Australia with the abbreviation of AUKUS. The main feature of this announcement was the sharing of American nuclear technology for the development of some 12 Australian nuclear-powered submarines.

Not only did this new alliance exclude the European Union, which had announced its own new Indo-Pacific strategy on the same day without any advance warning of the AUKUS announcement. It also excluded the French in particular – with a simultaneous announcement from the Australian Prime Minister cancelling a previous multi-billion dollar contract with the French Naval Group for a set of diesel-powered submarines. The first notice to the French of this catastrophe came from a Politico article published on the day of the announcement! Ouch! More commentary on the impact of this diplomatic blunder is available here, but suffice it to say here that the French were angry and embarrassed enough to cancel the gala event – AND to call back its ambassadors from both Washington, DC and Canberra.

So we wondered whether this major diplomatic crisis would have any bearing on festivities in Grasse. But we decided to go ahead and check it out. While we did notice that public participation in the event was more sparse than previous events, the full colorful regalia was on display. The strong winds could even be identified as a reaffirmation of the commonly shared winds of liberty, peace and justice that continue to serve as the foundations of Franco-American friendship. And our conversations with the two American representatives on the program confirmed that the disruptions from the crisis were not penetrating to this local level. Fortunately, the crisis has passed even if the underlying issues will continue to fester in the ups and downs of Franco-American relations generally.

We enjoyed the reaffirmation by the several speakers at this event that there is a strong history of shared values. We joined in the singing of both the Marseillaise and the Star-spangled Banner as the French and American flags were hoisted into the windy sky to join the flags of Bar-sur-Loup, Grasse and the European Union.

Crack troops displayed their skills. (Notice the French capacity to include men and women with diverse backgrounds in their arsenals.)

And, of course, multiple wreaths were delivered to the foot of the statue of the Amiral de Grasse by different clusters of dignitaries (representing the city of Grasse, the conglomeration of the Pays de Grasse, the Department of Alpes-Maritimes, the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur, and many other local units).

Group photos in front of the Admiral de Grasse concluded the festivities before the sharing of an aperitif with the iconic tapenade pastries.

Note: Kathy has written a few “musings” about the Amiral de Grasse with a focus on the search for statues of the Amiral de Grasse in the US. Read about our search for his statue, reportedly near the Old Cape May Lighthouse in Virginia Beach.  We weren’t able to access it since it was in the middle of a secured US military base. But we’ll try again.  We did find another one in Yorktown, Virginia, which shows him in a strategic exchange with General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. We think this is a bit odd since the main French commander in Yorktown was General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, not Lafayette. But we do understand the historic elevation of Lafayette in American history books. So it is no surprise that statues of both Lafayette and Rochambeau are featured in Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, DC, but not the Amiral de Grasse.

Ravel — Greatest Hits