PRESSLER: From Humboldt to Paris, a great ride

I come from the small town of Humboldt, population about 600, but I somehow ended up teaching very bright French graduate students at Sciences Po, the Harvard of the French university system, last fall.

Larry Pressler
Larry Pressler

I come from the small town of Humboldt, population about 600, but I somehow ended up teaching very bright French graduate students at Sciences Po, the Harvard of the French university system, last fall.

Sciences Po has trained all the top French politicians, businessmen and diplomats, and is one of the finest schools in the world. It is classified as a "Grand Ecole" by the French, which means it gets the best students.

Since leaving the Senate, I have been a peripatetic professor, having taught contract semesters at various American universities and at several universities abroad (including Harvard and West Point). My wife Harriet usually comes along with me.

Our semester in Paris began in August and finished in December. I've been invited back for some follow-up lectures sometime later this year.

College teaching does not pay much -- I'm one senator who did not become a lobbyist and get rich, but we have been able to get by on adjunct professor's pay.


What is South Dakota's relationship to France (other than French fries)? Probably not much.

But South Dakota was once part of France. The French always regarded their overseas territories as actually being part of France. We have several cities in South Dakota, including our capital, Pierre, with French names.

And we have a lot of Native Americans in South Dakota with partially French names from intermarriage with the early French trappers, traders, and explorers.

In the Louisiana Purchase, of which South Dakota was a part, Napoleon made a calculation that he needed Thomas Jefferson's money, $15 million, to help him in a war he had going against England.

Also, according to one French historian, Napoleon once had a briefing in which he looked at a map of all Louisiana Purchase territory. He was told that if he kept the territory, he would have to permanently have troops in Louisiana, St. Louis, and what is now Fort Pierre.

The reason he would have to have troops that far north was that the British were dominant in Canada and he feared they would come down the Missouri River at some point. If Napoleon had made a decision to really commit to the Louisiana Territory, Fort Pierre might have become one of the most important forts in the world, especially if the English had attacked it.

Napoleon was so busy in Europe that I think he just wanted to take the $15 million dollars and run -- he was not in a position to station troops that far away. Our modern-day USA likes to station troops all over the world, but we are starting to realize that we can't afford it anymore.

Napoleon was at about that point when he made the decision to sell the Louisiana Territory to President Jefferson. If Napoleon had gone the other way, it might be that we would be a French-speaking state like Quebec -- but then we'd have to conjugate all those difficult verbs!


I found the French students to be bright, articulate, and they actually like Americans. I know there has been a lot of anti-American feeling in France, and anti-French feeling in America over the years.

France lately does not have a good record in terms of supporting U.S. policy in World War II or in certain subsequent matters, but let's remember that George Washington said he could not have won the Revolutionary War without French help, so the pendulum swings back and forth.

The French are more socialistic, but they seem to envy the U.S. Although we have stumbled around in getting into foreign wars that I think we should not be in (Iraq and Afghanistan), the French secretly admire that we at least try. We, like France, are out of money, and we have just got to stop all of those foreign wars that we like to get into, in my opinion.

I told the French students that Europe would have to pay more of the price for some of these wars, as Europe benefits as we are providing national defense for them. However, the French students do not want their country to get entangled in foreign wars.

I taught one graduate class of 23 students, and we followed the American elections for foreign policy issues. One difference in French foreign policy from American foreign policy is that the French are less pro-Israel. They trade with a lot of the Arab states, and are more pro-Arab.

This is somewhat troubling, since many of the terrorist organizations seem to get their money from Arab states, but the French argue that if were less pro-Israel, we would have less terrorists. It led to some lively classroom debates.

The French also have a very protective agricultural export situation, in which they subsidize their exports. In the past, this has caused problems for American farmers, but lately commodity prices are so high that nobody is complaining.

The French have a more selfish foreign policy than we do. I would argue that we Americans are more idealistic and want to help people around the world more. However, the French students respond by saying that much of our international military activity is to support U.S. corporations doing business in many countries.


In any event, I was delighted to get back to Humboldt, South Dakota, recently. It is probably the most extreme jump from one culture to another from Paris to Humboldt, but Humboldt feels like home for me, and I haven't missed Paris yet -- but I'm sure in a year or two we'll be ready to go again.

Since leaving the Senate I have not become a lobbyist and I have not made much money. Some former senators remain financially solvent but not rich, if you can believe it.

But I pinch myself to think that I had the chance to teach French students at the Harvard of France. God has been very good to me.

-- Larry Pressler, 71, of Humboldt, represented South Dakota as a Republican member of the U.S. House (1975-1979) and U.S. Senate (1979-1997).

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