French flags fly alongside our own on Roxas Boulevard, on the short walk to the Rizal monument, and on the gates of Malacañang today. President François Hollande of France is in Manila for a two-day state visit, and grounding the high-level political and economic talks will be our long historical relationship with France, which antedates official diplomatic relations. There was a French consulate in Manila long before the Philippines became a free and independent nation. There was a French consul in Manila who reported to Paris the events of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, and his dispatches now form part of the primary sources for the period.
If we want to go really far back, one can say that Philippine-French relations started in 1521, with the French sailors in the Magellan expedition who set foot on Cebu and participated in the Battle of Mactan. One French ambassador to the Philippines once playfully remarked that perhaps the union of a French sailor and a woman from Cebu produced the first French-Cebuano mestizo.
When the First Republic was founded in Malolos, one of its first acts was to ratify the Declaration of Independence from Spain that was read from the window of Emilio Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit, Cavite, on June 12, 1898. The ratification was celebrated on Sept. 29, 1898, with a daylong fiesta from which two menus survive—one for lunch and the other for dinner, both giving the sequence and names of the various dishes in French! Surely the “coquille des crabes” is our very own “rellenong alimango” under a fancy name, and perhaps the “abatis de poulet a la Tagale” was our “adobong manok”?
On the surface, the menus seem rather pretentious, but it was a way for our founding fathers to show the world that we were a civilized people, capable of a wonderful banquet, and therefore capable of self-government. Nick Joaquin once declared that the menus should be remembered side by side with the Malolos Constitution because these historical documents were an assertion of the identity and independence of our stillborn nation. The founding fathers looked to the French Revolution for inspiration, and on the banquet menus were inscribed the rallying cry of “Liberty, equality, fraternity!”
When I was in college I read some 19th-century French travel accounts of the Philippines, the most memorable being the illustrated works of Paul P. de la Gironiere (1854), J. Montano (1886), Alfred Marche (1887), and Henri Turot and Gaston Rouvier (1899). All these and more were readily available from the enviable collection of Marc Tequi, who collected anything and everything in French on the Philippines. At one point I asked myself why I was learning about the Philippine past from French eyes, and maybe it would be interesting to turn things around and learn about France from the eyes of Filipinos who had lived there, or visited Paris. For this we have the writings of 19th-century patriots: Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, Felix Roxas, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and, of course, Jose Rizal, who regularly wrote to friends and family back home to narrate what he saw and experienced of France and the French.
One of many charming letters that Rizal wrote in the summer of 1883 was from the Hotel de Paris on 37 rue de Maubeuge, a hotel popular with expatriate Filipinos. He described to his family how the architecture, the landscape, the people, the language and the culture changed as his train travelled from Spain to France. He expressed excitement about visiting Paris and the places he knew from history and literature. He even mentioned visiting the places associated with the Three Musketeers that he knew from his boyhood.
Rizal remarked on the politeness of the French in contrast to Spaniards and Filipinos; he was impressed that they would even apologize if they literally bumped into you in the street. He mentioned all the tourist attractions he had seen or planned to visit using a Baedeker guide to Paris. Today we can discover Paris through Google and have a choice between text, images, or videos, so this might make Rizal’s travel writing obsolete except that in many cases he framed what he saw from a Pinoy viewpoint:
“Early in the morning I went out for a stroll, and by the long time that I walked and the little I covered, I can imagine how big this city that they call Babylon is. Fill with magnificent houses the entire area of Calamba, Cabuyao and Santa Rosa and you will have Paris, more or less. That is the way I figure it out because to traverse it in a coach from one extreme to the other takes more than an hour and a half. Here man is a real ant; there are streets whose ends cannot be seen and nevertheless they are straight, wide and very well laid out, shops and department stores everywhere; coaches for hire are said to reach 25,000. Passersby animate and throng the streets, the restaurants, cafés, bouillons, beer halls, parks and monuments. On every street, however small it may be, there is at least one hotel, and these hotels are filled with travellers from all parts of the world who come and go, so that there are always seen faces, trunks and suitcases everywhere, different attires, strange types, including us. Here they call us Japanese, because there is a large number of them around.”
Once upon a time Rizal was an innocent abroad, and that visit to France added to what he became.
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