AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s fair to say that Gov. Paul LePage has been criticized from time to time for comments that some have deemed offensive. Among his most recent critics are Franco-Americans, who say LePage, a Franco-American himself, has been reinforcing old stereotypes in some of his public comments.
The governor has rarely been able to resist the opportunity to capitalize on his Franco-American ethnic heritage when speaking to a crowd. Last October, it came in the form of a relatively benign reference made in a campaign debate to the fact that he had toned down his rhetoric in the past two years.
“Even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down,” LePage said.
But lately, during interviews with reporters, the governor has been injecting references to his French roots in ways that some members of Maine’s Franco-American community find offensive. Last week, when responding to allegations that he had abused his power to interfere with the hiring of House Speaker Mark Eves by a private school, LePage denied that his actions amounted to blackmail.
“I think you’re misusing the word — and that’s coming from a Frenchman,” LePage said.
Then this week, when questioned about his interpretation of the rules governing the veto process, he responded this way: “It’s very clear, very, very clear — even I can understand it and I’m French,” LePage said.
“I don’t want to reprimand him, I just want to say stop doing it — it’s not necessary,” says Mitch Thomas, the executive director of the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine’s largest Franco community. Thomas says the fact that one of Lewiston’s native sons is citing his heritage in a way that demeans Francos is only exacerbated by LePage’s national stature as governor, and it’s disturbing to many.
“With all due respect to the governor, the people I speak for are people who have worked hard to eliminate the kind of derogatory remarks, in particular, that make reference to the intelligence of French people or Franco-American people that are so not true — never have been,” Thomas says. “But it has been something that, historically, in the time that I grew up and the time that governor grew up, were probably accepted. But they’re not accepted anymore. We don’t do that anymore.”
And the outrage didn’t stop at the Lewiston town line. Three-hundred-fifty miles north, in the Aroostook County town of Frenchville, former state senator and representative Judy Ayotte Paradis is infuriated by LePage’s attempts at cultural humor. She says she’s been working for 50 years to eradicate those negative stereotypes.
“He is reinforcing the stereotype of the dumb Frenchman, and so he’s saying he’s dumb and ignorant and we have to forgive those gaffes, those multiple, multiple gaffes that he’s making by saying, ‘Oh it’s my French — I’m French,’ so that he can get away with murder on this deal,” Paradis says.
On the website of the Bangor Daily News, readers have been weighing in by the dozens on a story in which LePage referenced his ability to understand the Constitution despite being French.
“He needs to stop stereotyping French people,” says one reader, “and it’s no excuse for his ignorance.”
Another reads: “Hey governor, self-deprecating humor is one thing. Reinforcing a false stereotype that French Canadian people in Maine are dumb is another.”
Peter Steele, director of communications for the governor, took issue with the notion that there is widespread dissatisfaction among Franco-Americans in Maine about LePage’s statement.
“This is yet another story from the liberal media that names only two people — one of whom is politically opposed to the governor — as evidence of an entire ‘community’ being ‘outraged’ and ‘frustrated’ with the governor,” Steele said. “Gov. LePage came from the streets of Little Canada and made it all the way to the Blaine House. He is grateful to the people who helped him get there, and he is very proud of his Franco-American heritage. The people of Maine know he often uses humor when speaking publicly — even if the media doesn’t get it — and they turned out in record numbers to re-elect him. The very definition of ‘self-deprecating humor’ means he is poking fun at himself, not the Franco-American community.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.