WHEN: 15 July 2014

WHERE: Reims, France

INTERVIEWER: Charles Daris (Past President of the Arlington-Reims Sister City Committee)

CDaris: It’s the 15th of July, 2014, we are in Reims, and I am for the Arlington Sister City Association’s oral history project interviewing Arnauld Desplanques, who is the longstanding President of the Reims-Arlington Committee. We will talk about his reminiscences and his recollections surrounding the history of the relationship between Arlington and Reims.

Arnauld, would you like to recount the origins of this project from your perspective?

ADesplanques. Many years ago, I contacted the President of the Reims branch of France-USA, and I told him that there was a country that greatly interested me, the United States of America. He enrolled me in his association which is a large national organization but with just a few local participants in Reims and with a very small budget, with limited possibilities. I was a member of France-USA in the Champagne-Ardennes branch.

CD. What was the name of the President?

AD. He was a lawyer, Maitre Robert.   He died and his successor locally was Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger who became President of the Champagne-Ardennes chapter. Because of his dynamic personality Mr. Taittinger brought new energy to the local organization.  He recruited more members, organized interesting lectures. It was vibrant and there was money, because of the funding he brought to the organization. Then, Mr. Taittinger resigned his post as President of the chapter because he traveled a great deal and for long periods and he could no longer manage the organization. He asked me to replace him, and I accepted because I was very interested in the activity. Afterwards he helped me, for example when I needed meeting places. He had the Taittinger power behind him.

And then, Harry Amos became interested in the city of Reims; I don’t know whether it was he, or whether at the beginning it started in Aachen. Anyway, it was Harry Amos who began coming to Reims in 1999 to make contact with the Mayor of Reims, who at that time was Jean Falala. And Mayor Falala was slow to act; he did not want a new sister city relationship.   He would not say yes or no. We had two or three exchanges a year, but there no movement.

Harry came in 1999, probably again in 2000 and I think every year until 2004. The Mayor of Aachen played a very important part because he was close to Jean-Louis Schneiter, who had become the new mayor of Reims. Schneiter told me that Reims and Arlington would become sister cities. There was to be an exhibit about 9/11 organized by the U.S. Embassy and France-USA , and it was on that occasion that the Mayor of Reims announced that there would be a sister city relationship between the two cities.

CD. It was in 2004?

AD. Yes, probably January or February 2004. After that we had to prepare the by-laws for this association. It became official on August 30, 2004, the anniversary of the liberation of Reims by the Americans. On that occasion several people attended, including Schneiter, Harry Amos, Barbara Favola, and others including a lawyer..

CD. Jack Melnick?

AD. Yes, Melnick and another person. So these were people had been coming for many years and thereafter we took matters in hand. Then, in February 2005 our association in Reims asked if we could travel to Arlington to prepare a visit by Mayor Schneiter. I came with Sylvie and Christophe Thienot and a few others. We were well-received .

In July 2005 the Mayor of Reims went to Arlington. The sister city relations agreement was signed by Jay Fisette at Arlington House on July 5, 2005. Barbara Favola was present. They laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.

CD. The unknown having been chosen in your neighboring town, Chalons-en-Champagne.

AD. Yes. Afterwards the Mayor went to the National Press Club for a press conference. There were many other successful events during the visit and the Mayor left with very pleasant memories.

Since 2005, the Mayor of Reims has received all the sister cities during the annual Festival of Joanne d’Arc in early June.

There were several other trips to the US. In order to travel we tried to make it in conjunction with an event. Besides contacts between the technical departments of our cities, there was the inauguration of the Arlington Artisphere. The year before we told that we would come with a delegation. Without some event, we do not travel.

CD. You mean a good reason.

AD. Yes, a good reason.

CD. But in the meantime there were the school exchanges.

AD. Yes, And there were also the internships with Arlington businesses. And there also was a young female student who spent an entire school year in Arlington. The school exchanges worked well.   Then, the School of Political Sciences opened a branch in Reims for North American students. We have developed a strong relationship with that school and when they have an interesting lecturer we jointly sponsor events, to which we both issue invitations.

CD. In the meantime, you also organized events to raise money and at the same time to strengthen relations between the people of France and the U.S., such as your annual Thanksgiving Dinner and the film festivals of American movies.

AD. Yes, we usually do organize the Week of American Cinema at the beginning of the year, end February. For many years we sought a solution to obtain films, finally the solution turned out to be in Reims, thanks to the director of a local cinema who knows the distributor. What is important is the choice of the films, and now we have formed a good team and we are perfecting our procedures to provide the films that permit us to attract an audience.   The public wants the work of independent American directors. People don’t come to old movies, they want recent films.

CD. Thanks to your efforts, you are also working with the American Embassy, which has helped you on several projects.

AD. Yes, they have now helped us for the second year.

CD. They have helped you not only for your films, but also for your publications.

AD. They have helped somewhat, but our readers are only interested in material in French, not in English.

What I wish is that we could have quarterly meetings between the Embassy’s cultural affairs officials and groups such as ours devoted to relations with America to see how we could help each other. What can you organize? What can you offer us? What can we do together? That would establish a good communications channel – which does not exist now – and we could organize many more events together.

I’ll give you an example. I was at the U.S. Embassy for the 4th of July There was a famous American female vocalist who performed. Sophie Nadeau of the Embassy said to me after the performance that this person could come to France anytime to perform, you only have to program in advance. She said that 2 hours ago I didn’t even know she was here. Everything we have organized so far with the Embassy has been disorderly and haphazard. If we met regularly we would have better relations.

CD. On your side, Arnauld, you have created an Reims organization that functions well. How many members do you have?

AD. Some members pay every year, some occasionally. We have as many as 200 Among those about 100 pay.

CD. Are there any business community members?

AD. No. No champagne houses, nothing commercial. That doesn’t interest them.   But when we have a big event about 20 members show up automatically. We have a solid base of members. And for example the book that we just published on American aviation attracted 10 or so new members.

CD. You have taken many initiatives. Have there been any disappointments these past 10 years in your efforts to expand relations with your American counterparts?

AD. I don’t really think so.

CD. I’m thinking for example of the stained glass project.

AD. No, we did nothing there. A study was done, the project failed.

Thanksgiving, that really works well. It’s a nice event. We began small, 20 persons, but now we had more than 212 persons the last time.

CD. And for the future, what projects do you have in mind?

AD. I want to reinforce ties with the school of Political Science, the quality of the lectures and lecturers and exhibits.  For example, there was a nice photographic exhibit on U.S. Route 66 at the Embassy. I would have loved to have used it. We have large exhibit spaces at commercial centers in Reims. And people I talked to here were very interested. One of the largest centers offered us a space to do that exhibit. But at the last minute when we were ready the owners of the space changed their minds and wanted to charge us. It would have been 4,000-6,000 euros. If it had been 1,000 euros we might have been able to find it, but that was sum too high. It didn’t work out. I dream of hearing from somebody at the Embassy that they have an exhibit, and I would work with them here to find space in a commercial center.

CD. Do you envision, in view of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, of using the participation of the U.S. in the First World War, even though that participation came at the end of the war?

AD. Apart from our book on the American air force participation in the war we are not planning on any other effort. I suppose we could create an event in connection with the book.

CD. Would there be any possibility of an event connected to the presence of the American military in Reims in the two world wars?

AD. The large presence of Americans in the region after the Great War, your reconstructions activities in Reims, people still talk about it in the streets.

CD. Have you other ideas for the future given the positive attitude in the region toward the U.S. ?

AD. I look for ideas. You Americans contributed to the well-being of this region, people have a good attitude towards the U.S. thanks to your acts. I want to do at least four events a year: the week of American cinema, Thanksgiving, the annual sister city celebration at the beginning of June – this event is reserved for delegations and officials, so the population is less involved – and perhaps a photography exhibit that would attract attention of the people.

I was pleased the other day when the Charge d’Affaires of the United States came to Reims. While he was here he told me that the Embassy was aware of all the work that we do to further French-American friendship. That touched me very much.

CD. You deserved that tribute.