Convinced of the need to create a communication platform between France and the United States, a number of prominent political, academic, media and business figures, came together in 1975 to create two sister foundations in Paris and New York, thus establishing the French-American Foundation. The official announcement was made in 1976 during a state dinner in Washington celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the United States attended by Presidents Gerald Ford and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
Five years later, in 1981, the Young Leaders program was created. It represented the first major initiative to build lasting relationships between young French and Americans with high career potential. Over the years, new initiatives and exchange programs were introduced, allowing the French-American Foundation to carry out its mission and become one of the major players in the relationship between France and the United States.
The following is excerpted from The French-American Foundation – the Early Years, an article by the Honorable James G. Lowenstein, founding member and member of the Board of Directors of the French-American Foundation.
It all began, as had so many other initiatives, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In late 1973, I had a number of conversations with James Chace, then the Managing Editor of the Council’s journal, Foreign Affairs, about the state of relations with France. At that time, I was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had been struck by the anti-French attitudes I had encountered not only there but in my previous assignments at the State Department. It seemed to me that the French could do no right as far as the majority of Senators and State Department officials were concerned. And the same antagonism pervaded the press. On the other hand, French attitudes, and often actions, appeared to be based on what seemed to Americans to be a visceral anti-Americanism. There had, of course, been exceptions—French support in the various Berlin crises, in the Cuban missile crisis, in the abortive summit meeting with Khrushchev in Paris, but the underlying tone of what was said about U.S. policy at the Foreign Ministry, in the National Assembly and, even more stridently, in the French press was invariably critical if not hostile. I wondered, I said to James, if something could not be done outside government channels to bring to bear a more rational and productive approach. James replied at one of these discussions that he had recently had an almost identical conversation with Nicholas Wahl, then a professor at Princeton, and he offered to bring the two of us together. The three of us first met at the Council, and then Nick and I began to meet whenever I was in New York or he in Washington. We soon reached the conclusion that what was needed was a serious non-governmental organization that would bring together those interested in the French-American relationship in its largest sense—that is, not devoted, as some existing organizations were, exclusively to cultural matters or, as some universities were, to academic inquiry. There were such organizations devoted to U.S. relations with Germany and Japan, our adversaries in World War II; with Latin America; with Asia; and with Africa. There were institutions dealing with U.S. relations with Europe as a whole, but it seemed to us that the French-American relationship had become a case study in mutual misperceptions and thus had a uniquely complicated if not neuralgic nature that, for better or worse, set it apart. We soon fastened on the idea of a foundation, realizing that certain conditions would have to be met if one were to be created. The first was a critical mass of support from people who had a strong interest in the subject and were prepared to spend time on the project. The second was, of course, funding, but it seemed to us that the financing would follow if sufficient support could be found. The third was the participation of the French for, after all, it would not be as effective or credible an approach to deal with bilateral subject matters from only one side of the Atlantic. And in considering this third condition, we came up with the idea of two foundations—one on each side of the Atlantic, each able to bring to bear their perspective. In other words, this would not be yet another case of Americans dealing with the French (or preaching to the French) without some sort of reciprocity. On May 17, 1976, the day before the dinner at the French Embassy in Washington to commemorate the American bicentennial to be attended by President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger, and at which the French President Giscard D’Estaing was to announce the formation of the two foundations, it became necessary to inform Secretary Kissinger about the project. Arthur Hartman, then Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and later Ambassador to France, sent the Secretary a memorandum saying that Giscard would mention the subject in his remarks at the dinner and provided background information. At the dinner on May 18, there was an exchange of toasts between the two presidents. A White House press release gave the text of the following two paragraphs in Giscard’s toast: “For this reason, lastly, I hope that there will be more and more contacts and meetings between our two countries and that, in fact, will be the aim of the two foundations which have just been established, one in New York and the other in Paris, in order to promote relations between the United States and France. “Under the guidance of well-known figures, they will work together closely to further exchanges and dialogue between our two countries. Now, one of the objectives of my visit to which I am most attached will have been achieved. I know, Mr. President, that it meets your wishes too; that is, that France and the United States should know each other better in order to understand each other better.”