MITT ROMNEY: (foreign language spoken)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If that voice sounds familiar, it's because it is Mitt Romney's voice. He's waxing eloquent in French about the two years he spent as a young man, living in France. He called it an enriching experience.
The video was made to promote the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Now on the campaign trail, the Republican presidential hopeful doesn't talk a lot about his years as a Mormon missionary in France.
So, here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley with a few details on that enriching experience.
MAYOR PHILIPPE BRIALLAUT: (Foreign language spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's Philippe Briallaut, mayor of the town of Le Chesnay, which lies just outside of Paris and next to Versailles. From his office window he points out Louis the 14th's chateau.
BRIALLAUT: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Voila, he says, pointing to where another landmark will soon stand – France's first Mormon temple. But Briallaut says a petition against it is causing him real headaches.
BRIALLAUT: (Through Translator) People are wary of the Mormons because they're rigorous, organized and they have money. People are scared of organized groups that have money because that means they have the means to achieve their goals.
BEARDSLEY: Briallaut says many people also think the Mormons are a cult. When Romney arrived in France to do his mission work in 1966, few people had ever heard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Political scientist Nicole Bacharan was one who had. Bacharan says her parents used to invite Romney to dinner. Though she was only a girl at the time, she says she remembers him well.
NICOLE BACHARAN: He was fun, he was smart, he was quick, and he was always surrounded by an adoring crowd of friends. You know, other young missionaries who always said, this young guy is going to be one day the president of the United States.
BEARDSLEY: Bacharan notes that Romney was in France when it erupted into chaos in May 1968. Student demonstrators set fire to cars and hurled cobblestones at riot police. Romney has said he had a firsthand view of very volatile time.
BACHARAN: He probably had a very difficult time understanding what happened in '68, because it was very foreign and from a conservative family and a young man coming from Michigan, the son of a governor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
BEARDSLEY: A Mormon Sunday service is underway in the town of Torcy, to the east of Paris, in a converted office building. Many families have shown up. Christian Euvrard is a prominent French Mormon. He says things have changed a lot in France since Romney was here. Then the church was seen as American. Today, he says France has 36,000 Mormons.
CHRISTIAN EUVRARD: Certainly in the '60s, you would go in a restaurant and say we don't take wine. Oh, they would look at you, you know, in a strange way. But today it's much, much, much easier. We're not as different, in a sense, today than maybe we would have been looked at in the '60s.
CASEY COLEMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Twenty-year-old Casey Coleman, a missionary from Annapolis, Maryland, practices the introduction he uses when he goes door to door, as Romney did, telling people about the Mormon faith. Coleman says being a missionary is a life changing experience.
COLEMAN: Being thrown out into a country where you don't speak the language, and where you're just with no one that you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLEMAN: You're kind of forced to grow up a little bit.
BEARDSLEY: Romney may have had to mature more than he wanted. He was involved in a fatal car accident that killed the wife of the mission head. Romney was driving when a drunk driver plowed into their car. Romney was badly injured, but recovered quickly and went back to being a missionary known for his charm and winning ways.
Now, on the campaign trail, the memory Romney shares from that time is of primitive French toilets. And he often disparages France and Europe as he attacks President Obama.
ROMNEY: He wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BEARDSLEY: Nicole Bacharan says she doesn't understand that.
BACHARAN: He had some families who really liked him and welcomed him. And he spoke French perfectly, I mean very well at least. And he's trashing Europe, the way he does it is a bit painful.
BEARDSLEY: If Romney does make it to the White House, he may have to start talking about Europe with a little more finesse.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.
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