Former northern Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, who served 18 terms in the U.S. House before succumbing to the Republican Tea Party wave of 2010, is being awarded the French government’s Commander of the National Order of Merit, something of a Legion of Honor for non-French citizens.
Oberstar will be decorated by French Ambassador François Delattre Tuesday during a reception at the ambassador’s residence for the Congressional French Caucus, of which the French-speaking Oberstar was a co-founder.
The award, founded by the late French President Charles de Gaulle, recognizes Oberstar’s “distinguished career of public service.” In particular, it acknowledges Oberstar’s friendship in the dark days of Franco-American relations during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, when French opposition to the war prompted calls in Congress for renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries,” etc.
Oberstar, who did part of his university studies in French-speaking Belgium and Quebec, pushed back against the popular anti-French backlash over the Iraq War. In the end, he said Monday, the French “were right.”
Oberstar provided more direct material support to the French during the early days of President Obama’s administration when he helped convince the new president to spare France's Roquefort cheese from a “crippling” 300-percent import duty.
The measure had been imposed in the final days of George W. Bush’s presidency “as part of a package of duties in retaliation for a European ban on U.S. beef containing hormones,” Agence France-Presse reported at the time.
The Iron Range native’s Francophile roots run deep, going back to his days as a civilian French-English language teacher for the Marine Corps in Haiti. He was regarded as one of the only fluent-French speakers in Congress, besides Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.