June 25, 2015
From the Bi-Centennial celebrations in 1976 to the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America today, Nicole Yancey has been a tireless supporter of French-American friendship and cross-cultural exchanges. Photo Credit: NBC News
D-Day veteran Cary Jarvis received the French Legion of Honor by retired French Consulate Nicole Yancey and (center) Col. Denys Columb, the French national liaison representative to Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. Jarvis was one of two dozen World War II vets honored at a ceremony in December at the French Embassy in Washington, but he couldn't attend because wasn’t well enough to make the trip from his home in Virginia Beach. Photo credit: David B. Hollingsworth / The Virginia Pilot
Editor’s Note: The upcoming Hermione-Lafayette Parade of Ships in New York Harbor on July 4, 2015 will be one of the most anticipated events since Operation Sail in 1976, in celebration of our Bi-Centennial anniversary.
Nicole Yancey, a native of Orleans, France, moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s and has worked tirelessly to advance bi-lateral relations between her native France and America ever since, from our Bi-Centennial celebrations in 1976 to the Hermione Voyage 2015 project. As France’s Honorary Consul in Virginia, she has also played an important role as liaison between France and the National Park Service in the passage and establishment of both the Yorktown Victory Center and the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, the latter a 680-mile trail from Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia. Here are highlights from a recent conversation with David Lincoln Ross, Editorial Director, Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Inc.
Q: When did you first hear about Hermione 2015 project, and with whom do you partner and work with these days?
I learned about it in the late 1990. I have many friends in the Poitou-Charentes area as well as involved with the re-construction of the Hermione. Françoise Jouanneau – who is a former Rochefort citizen – is founding member of the Association Hermione La Fayette and former deputy mayor of Rochefort , was guest at my house about that time. We discussed the possibility for re-enactors to travel to Rochefort and do a bivouac in Rochefort; it was done in 2001 with great success.
Q: When did you first came to the USA and what is your earliest association with being involved in fostering better relations between your native France and your adopted country?
A: I first came to the US as a student in political science and history. I started working with what was called at the time Virginia Independence Bicentennial Committee in 1974 as coordinator for French participation in the Bi-Centennial Celebration in Virginia. As such, I worked with many Governors such as Mills Godwin, John Dalton, Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles and George Allen.
Q: Is it true you played a role in our country’s Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976? What did you do?
A: I coordinated French participation and I have remained active with Franco-American celebrations in the Commonwealth of Virginia until now.
Q: This involvement led to a number of subsequent and significant contributions of yours to various local, state and national French-American cultural, historical and other projects, what were they from the late 1970s to the present?
A: Yorktown Bi-Centennial 1981; Peace Treaties commemoration in Paris and Versailles 1983; Supervising design and construction of the French Memorial in Yorktown Battlefield 1989; “Son et Lumière” on the life of Rochambeau at his estate in Thoré-La-Rochette, near Vendôme, France; 1988; Son et Lumière “The Era of Liberty” in Vendômois in 1989, both times at the request of French Ministry of Culture; In 1992 in Hampton, Virginia, “The Era of Liberty,” adapted to combine French and American revolutions. This is to name a few.
In addition, I facilitated the creation of numerous sister-city relationships in Virginia. As an Honorary Consul of Virginia, I traveled throughout the state at least twice a year to assist in French activities, from a D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, to presenting Legion of Honor awards to WWII Veterans during the last 25 years.
Q: When did you first become aware and involved with the idea and project of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, known as W3R-US? Tell us briefly about this wonderful trail open to the public?
A: The first “formal” meeting was held in Yorktown with four long-time friends—the late Dr. Jacques Bossière, former French Senator André Maman, Christian Bickert (then chair of “The American Society of Le Souvenir Français) and Serge Gabriel—dates back to early 2000.
Q: Tell us briefly about your role over the subsequent years and working with your colleagues and the National Park Service (NPS)?
A: I have been working with the NPS as a volunteer since 1974, with NPS Headquarters in Yorktown in one capacity or the other, but always coordinating French participation. When the Public Management Act was passed by Congress in 2009 and the Washington-Rochambeau Route came into the National Trail System, I was and am still surprised that there was the very little interest and attention on Virginia from W3R-US (most of the state members had never visited Yorktown.). I therefore decided that I would put my energy in tracing the National Historic Trail (NHT) in Virginia and received tremendous support from National Park Service.
Q: Thanks to your longstanding efforts, you have been awarded not only France’s National Order of Merit, but also other distinguished honors, including The Legion of Honor. What is your guiding philosophy in your 30+ years in fostering French-American friendship?
A: Before settling in America, my parents were close friends with the Delalande family who are still owners of “Chateau de Tilly”, the last residence of Admiral de Grasse, who played a critical role in the siege of Yorktown. Through one of their nephews (an in-law), then sous-préfet of Vendôme, I also became friend and still am very close to the Rochambeau family and spend much time at the Estate and in turn they spend much time with us in Virginia. I will be traveling with Philippe and Nathalie de Gouberville, leading the group “Friends of Rochambeau,” after they leave Yorktown on June 7. So, with his in mind, I was surprised that very little was said about the French aid during the American Revolution and through acquaintances of my father-in law, I was privileged to meet a local historian by the name of Parke Rouse, who was director of what is now the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation.
The Yorktown Victory Center was in construction and Parke was looking for a person speaking French to help secure loans from French museums and private collections for the opening of the museum on April 1, 1976. At that time, I was already involved with the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Committee since I was president of Alliance Française and was working with the city of Hampton on a sister-city project with Vendôme. So, as you can appreciate, the Virginia Peninsula is a small community and one after the other, doors opened for me and may I say that I will always be very grateful because it allowed me to use my own talents as a French expat who was having much difficulty settling in her new country.
Q: What do you think it is about Lafayette’s life that can speak to young people in America?
A: May I say that contrary to many, I am not a Lafayette fan. I do recognize his many qualities of courage, enthusiasm, generosity and being young, rich and good-looking, which made him a hit in America, so the United States became and is still infatuated and under his spell. But it leaves many unsung heroes in the dark, such as de Grasse, Rochambeau and many others. There is an excellent article in the Smithsonian publication that reflects my thoughts: ” he was an unformed and untested youth of 19…he made a clumsy courtier… he… suddenly found (himself) sidelined with little hope for advancement …it was in this context that Lafayette took up American’s (America’s or Americans’?) fight for freedom… Lafayette never fully understood that his real job was to help get France into the war, not to fight himself…”
It may be a bit harsh criticism in the light of his close relationship with Washington. At the same time, it seems incongruous that he could have thought returning to America in 1780 as commander of the French Expeditionary forces. But he must have been elated by the welcome of the citizens of Boston. Thomas Jefferson called it his “canine appetite for fame”.
Q: How important is Hermione coming to Yorktown? What is the symbolism of its voyage to the US for you?
A: Few Americans know about the incident with the Iris off Long Island (in which the Hermione defeated the British frigate); or the other naval subsequent battles along the East Coast (from present-day Nova Scotia to her part in the blockade of Chesapeake Bay during the siege of Yorktown); or the reception of the entire Congress in Philadelphia on May 4, 1781, and the fact that the Hermione sailed to and stayed in Virginia waters from late September 1781 to February 1782.
It is also sad that history never gave Rochambeau and de Grasse the credit they were due and the Hermione was under their command in the Chesapeake. Nevertheless, and the Hermione is a very strong symbol for our two countries, and Lafayette achieved a lot on behalf of the independence of America. All that, and his “pursuit of liberty” is certainly until now the foremost value that is shared unquestionably by France and America. This, to me, is crucial to be remembered and celebrated.
For more information and support, visit: www.hermione2015.com