By Clair Whitmer
The new Miss France Chloé Mortaud, 19, is the first to carry two passports and one of them is American.
Mortaud is the daughter of Brenda, an African-American originally from Mississippi and raised in Los Angeles; Chloé advanced to the Miss France competition after being elected Miss Albigeois Midi-Pyrénées in September.
Mortaud resists the idea that she symbolises only La France métissée (mixed race). She would prefer people to refer to her as "international" and wants to represent a multicultural, multilingual France, one where people welcome their dual identities.
“I embrace fully my mixed-race identity and I'm proud but I want to represent everyone, like the majority of the French population, who has family from elsewhere. I want to tell them that you can have two countries and be very well integrated in France,” Mortaud told The Connexion.
Immediately dubbed "Miss Obama" by the press after her December coronation, she says she finds the label amusing.
Still, Barack Obama's election as the 44th American president, probably made Mortaud's story possible. Not only did it focus attention all the Miss France competitors of mixed-race origins, but Mortaud acknowledges that Obama's success has already changed people's attitudes about Franco-Americans.
She grew up mostly during the George W. Bush era and she is blunt about how Americans were perceived during the last eight years. “We were under a cold shower. It's been quite a few years that it wasn't well-seen to be American.
“People thought all Americans voted for Bush and we were always having to defend ourselves,” said Mortaud. "But here in France, we saw that people celebrated Obama's election like it was their own president. The attitude towards Americans has changed a lot.”
On an invitation from the French embassy, Mortaud was in Washington DC for the inauguration on January 20.
She broke down sobbing during a TF1 interview afterwards when the reporter said he had noticed her waving an American flag during the ceremony. “I'm proud, I'm proud,” she said in French. We've come so far and I'm just so proud.”
Geneviève de Fontenay, the famous dame au chapeau and president of the Miss France committee, later criticised Mortaud's hair and clothes during her inauguration appearance and the international excitement over Obama has not protected Mortaud against the latest Miss France scandal involving another sort of electoral politics.
While Miss France 2007, Rachel Legrain-Trapani, has accused the Miss France committee of vote-tampering during the 2009 election, the most serious charge has come from the first runner-up in the Albigeois-Midi-Pyrénées regional election, Marine Beaury. She has reportedly filed a complaint in a Toulouse court charging that Mortaud won her regional title thanks to her parents' influence. Beaury wants Mortaud's regional title revoked, a decision that would automatically make her ineligible as Miss France.
The complaint, as released to the press, noted that Mortaud's mother works as an English teacher at the local chamber of commerce and industry, which sent two jury members to represent the region; Chloé's father, Jean-Marie, is also affiliated with the chamber as a business advisor. Beaury's lawyer has made no comment and Chloé Mortaud did not
Mortaud says she speaks "franglais" at home with her parents and her younger brother, Grégoire.
“We can start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. The word that comes first to your head in whichever language is the one you use,” she said. She remembers a childhood complete with trick-or-treating and Jack O'Lanterns even before Halloween became fashionable in France.
“My parents had to alert the neighbours that we'd be coming over asking for candy,” she said.
Mortaud believes her heritage represents modern France very well and that her language skills and uniqueness as the first Franco-American Miss France draw positive attention to France - and, yes, she does get fan-mail from the US.
"I was stunned but they recognise me there too," she said. Mortaud is already planning a trip back to the US with her mother and after her year as Miss France is up, she would like to live there for a few years.
Her parents met in Togo, where her mother was visiting on a humanitarian mission. Chloé says it was love at first sight and the couple settled first in Lisieux, Normandy – with Brenda commuting to Paris to teach – and then to Bénac. It is in this small village in the Ariège of less than 500 inhabitants where Chloé's family has lived since she was 10.
Her mother Brenda has been living in France for 22 years. She holds a degree in French from Wellesley College, which is not recognised in France despite it being an affiliate of Harvard.
She said: “When I see her on TV, I have to tell myself, 'My, that's my daughter.' It is a strange sensation, partly yes, because she's Miss France but also because it's just so different from my experience. “My first reaction was, yes, but what about your studies?”
The experience has brought their family into the spotlight more than they expected although her husband and Cholé's brother don't seem to mind it.
“There's no reason for her not to be Miss France because she does have two nationalities. What would be really strange is for her to move to the US and become Miss America," she said, joking.
“It's been a fabulous experience. It's helped her grow and brought home to her her American heritage,” she said, referring to the Obama inauguration. She added: “People said, oh she was crying because she's Miss France, but her reaction was completely sincere.
“It's the kind of experience where elegance just flies out the window.”