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Pretty much everybody knows Jacqueline Kennedy “brought youth, glamour, and culture to the White House, and thereby became a media celebrity,” writes scholar Whitney Walton, but the First Lady was also a not-so-secret weapon in foreign relations, particularly in bettering US-French relations. Even the notoriously prickly Charles de Gaulle, president of France, was beaucoup impressed.

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“Like many Americans who studied in France in the twentieth century, Jacqueline Bouvier experienced a personal transformation of self-discovery, a deep appreciation for French history and culture, and greater international awareness,” writes Walton.

As the family name Bouvier suggests, the First Lady had French ancestry. She spent her junior year of college in France, knew French history and culture well, and had an excellent command of the language. When her husband, Senator John F. Kennedy, ran for President in 1960, these characteristics were initially thought to be liabilities. Jackie’s Frenchness was considered too cosmopolitan, sophisticated, intellectual, and Catholic for the American voter.

“People were surprised that I could speak English,” she said after noting that she spoke French on the campaign trail in New England, with its significant French Canadian population. (As a senator, her husband depended on her to translate French.)

Her interest in French clothing designers was another point of attack, especially considering the importance of garment workers’ and milliner’s unions in supporting JFK. The First Lady’s now-iconic wardrobe, largely designed by French-born American Oleg Cassini—a “simple A-line dress, a pillbox hat, medium-heeled pumps, and her hair in a bouffant”—took off in France as the “Jackie Look,” the first time “a look had originated in America and overtaken the world.”

While the French baggage was suspicious in the USA, it was, quelle surprise, precisely what appealed to the French. Paris Match didn’t feature JFK on the cover for his state visit—his first as President—to France in the spring of 1961. It had a picture of Jackie and the heading “Jacqueline Kennedy Returns to France.” In a rare achievement for an American, she was accepted as French.

And she was definitely the star of the show. President Kennedy would quip: “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it,” while realizing what an asset his wife was on the international scene.

“Staging and performance mattered in appealing to popular opinion abroad,” writes Walton, and Mrs. Kennedy’s voluminous luggage, which her husband had initially grumbled about, was part of the stage-setting.

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The First Lady’s success in France and then Vienna, where she wowed another of America’s international ogres, Nikita Khrushchev, bounced back positively to the US. Suddenly the liabilities of the campaign trail were assets at home. Walton highlights Jackie’s primary achievement as the deployment of Frenchness to construct “a cosmopolitan model of American femininity” and to “engage actively in foreign affairs.” In addition to de Gaulle and Khrushchev, she also cultivated good relations with the President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of India.

Kennedy’s French connections included a French chef in the White House—leading Julia Child to give her credit for the runaway success of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Jackie’s TV tour of the newly restored White House in early 1962, which made much of the French influence of the original building, was also a hit. In a cultural coup, she got French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux to release the Mona Lisa for exhibit in the US, not a popular move in France. In two months in early 1963, 1.7 million Americans saw the famous smile.

Before he was killed in Dallas, JFK had been planning a state visit for de Gaulle. Instead, the French President flew over to play a prominent role in the assassinated president’s state funeral.

De Gaulle, intent on a France free from American control, famously said that there were no friends in international relations, but informal or soft diplomacy was another thing entirely. Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t particularly change either her husband’s or de Gaulle’s views, but she did “contribute positively to each leader’s favorable view of the other, and she did change the way Americans and French people regarded one another.”

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French Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 34–57
Berghahn Books