Why France is second home to Poles
Paris — "The Polish community here may have a limited influence on French public affairs, but it is considerable enough that no one can afford to ignore it," notes Georges Mond, secretary-general of the prestigious Polish Historical Literary Society (PHLS) of France.
Sitting donnishly behind his desk at the 142-year-old "Biblioteka Polska" on the Isle St. Louis amidst a wealth of books, paintings, and sculptures, Mr. Mond , a naturalized French citizen of Polish origin, expounds with the flowing tutorial clarity of the university professor that he is.
"We are nothing like the Polish lobby in the United States," he explains in Slavic-accented French. "But as the largest community in Western Europe, we number roughly half a million votes with many Franco-Poles holding important academic and government positions."
Possibly France's best-known political personality of Polish descent is Michel Poniatowski, often referred to as the "Prince" because of his aristocratic forebear. Mr. Poniatowski acts as President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's intimate personal adviser and ambassador at large.
Included among the 580-member PHLS elite are leading university professors, scientists, historians, writers, architects, and artists -- the majority of them , like Poniatowski, second- and third-generation Franco-Poles.
Mr. Mond, a specialist on press and communications in Eastern Europe at Paris University, suggests that the Franco-Polish lobby swayed Charles de Gaulle's decision in 1957 to recognize the controversial Oder-Neisse frontier that divides Poland and East Germany. Mond also says that when Giscard ran for the presidency in 1974, he made the point under Poniatowski's guidance of promising to encourage Polish cultural awareness in an attempt to attract vital electoral support.
The Polish community in France has always nurtured sentimental attachments with the homeland, particularly through family, church, and cultural relations. Analysts believe that these relations play a significant role in maintaining Poland's contact with the West. Even during the cold war, France and Poland managed to retain close human ties with each other.
"Now our sensitivity to events in Poland has heightened considerably and we are looking with anguish toward the dark clouds in the East," observes Henri Adamczewski, a French-born university professor of Polish origin. "It is just too horrible to think what might happen. Poland has no allies except her enemies."
The Polish library overlooking the Seine represents an important and symbolic focal point not only for France's Polish community, but also for visiting students, scientists, artists, musicians, and theater groups from Poland. Unlike other East bloc countries, Poland allows its citizens to travel to the West with relative ease.
Characteristic of poles' defiance to uphold their nation's cultural heritage, the Biblioteka Polska was founded in 1838 by a group of eminent exiles such as Prince Adam Czartoryiski, poet Adam Mickiewicz, and composer Frederic Chopin, who had come to France following the brutal suppression by the Russians of the 1830-31 Polish insurrection. Today in Poland the library is highly respected among intellectual circles because of its historical prestige and influence.
Last May, during the papal visit to France, Pope John Paul II told a gathering of Poles that the library was a cultural institution of great importance in the West. "The Spirit gives life," he said. "This Spirit gives the life of man, the nation, and the fatherland. Many have tried to awaken [ this Spirit] by supporting, developing, and creating major works of Polish culture: prose, poetry, music, and art. . . . Despite numerous difficulties, the Polish library in Paris has tried to follow these traditions."
There are three main groups of Poles in France. First are the 19th-century emigres, with members from Poland's aristocratic, artistic, and intellectual ranks. Since the Napoleonic era, however, Poles have tended to regard France as their spiritual second homeland. As a result, there has always been a constant movement of writers, painters, and composers to Paris up to the present day.
A second group of Poles is the result of massive worker migration to the coal mines of northern France and the Lorraine following World War I. Poland's former communist leader Edward Gierek, for example, spent part of his life working of French mines. A third group of Poles, mainly of peasant stock, streamed into France when conditions became too harsh in rural Poland.
There are even villages in France where only Polish is spoken and traditional Roman Catholic festivities have been preserved.
The Franco-Polish community remains fervently conscious of its cultural identity, more so than in the United States because of geographical proximity. Although many have become naturalized Frenchmen, large numbers have opted to retain their Polish passports on a dual-national basis. During the holiday periods, trains traveling to Warsaw are crammed with thousands of Poles loaded with consumer goods returning home to visit friends and relatives.
"Both the family and the church are the most important institutions in Poland ," said Rev. Stanislas Ludwiczak, parish priest at the Polish Roman Catholic church on the fashionable Rue St. Honore in Paris. "These the communists cannot control or destroy. And they know this."
The Franco-Polish community tends to politically support the majority Giscardiens and Gaullists. Communist leverage, even among the workers in the north, is limited, but this does not prevent the from seeking to broaden its popular base. The communist Confederation Generale du Travail trade union, for example, publishes and distributes a free Polish-language journal.
"The Polish workers in the north are in close contact with labor conditions in Poland and know what life is like under communism," explains Mr. Mond, who himself participated in the June 1956 Poznan riots, which helped anti-Stalinist elements under the leadership of Wladyslaw Gomulka gain control of the Communist Party. "In poland the economy has been unhealthy because the workers have no heart in what they do. here in France they have incentives."
The Franco-Poles are closely monitoring developments in Poland. Various organizations besides the church have been raising funds in support of the Solidarity trade union movement. The French socialist Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail trade union, which has a substantial number of Franco-Polish supporters, has sent a truck-load of printing equipment to Poland to help out the movement. Many Franco-Poles send their relatives food packages. "Our families write to us saying that they have little to eat," said Waldeck C., a Polish student in Paris.
The Polish church, which has been helping its diaspora of immigrants, exiles, residents, and visitors in the French capital for the past 145 years, has been instrumental in encouraging links with the homeland. "The church has always been an important gathering place for Poles," said Fr. Stanislas. "We are a very active church. We help all Poles and never ask them political or religious questions."
Organizaitons attached to the Roman Catholic Church are deeply involved in the workers' movement. Visiting Poles often discuss problems such as the democratization of Poland in meetings with Franco-Polish workers, students, and intellectuals.
Observers maintain that contacts with France such as family visits, letter-writing, and cultural exchanges have had a pertinent effect on the Polish way of thinking, particularly trade union organization.