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By Noel Young
A deadly car crash which was thought to have killed him changed Mitt Romney’s life forever - and , friends believe, gave him the confidence that set him on course for a bid for the White House which now seems certain.
The French policeman surveying the wreckage of the Citroen car and the sprawled bodies on the twisting country road took one look at the lifeless Romney and wrote on his passport, “Il est mort.” He is dead .
The man who is now hot favorite to be the Republican choice for president had been working as a Mormon missionary in France.
It’s a task every young Mormon male is expected to carry out . Mitt’s father George, later boss of American Motors, had been a Mormon missionary in Britain before him, arriving to a very cool reception in Scotland.
Mitt was sent not to Britain but to France. He found the country in turmoil - and Americans hated because of their involvement in Vietnam .
Mitt remembered what happened as he and a fellow missionary went round knocking on doors in Paris. .
“Are you an American?” was a common greeting, Romney recalled. That was followed by, “‘Get out of Vietnam! Bang!’ The door would slam.”The two missionaries were not impressed . “We felt the French were pretty weak-kneed,” said one of Romney’s colleagues .
As riots in Paris went on around them, the nervous Mormon missionaries could hardly wait to get out into the countryside.
So when in June the mission president and his wife planned a road trip to the South of France in their roomiest car, a Citroen DS- and asked Mitt to be their chauffeur, he was delighted . Then, on a twisting road in wine country, disaster struck on the way back to Paris.
"We were all talking about how dangerous how the French highways were,’' Romney was to tell the Boston Globe almost 20 years later. .
“Literally as we were having that conversation, boom, we were hit. It happened so quickly ... there was no braking and no honking.’’
The other car - driven by a Catholic priest - had missed a curve and crashed into theirs , knocking Romney unconscious . One policeman swiftly decided that Romney was dead.
But he wasn’t. He finished in hospital with fractured ribs, a concussion and a broken arm. Tragically, the mission chief’s wife died . Romney’s brother-in-law flew to France immediately, to supervise Romney's care.
"We weren't really sure if he was even going to survive at that point," said Bruce Robinson, the brother-in-law. " All we understood was that there had been a fatal crash, and Mitt was in very bad shape."
Romney was in fact to make a full recovery. But back in Paris, sleeping in the mission house, he realised that the mission around him was collapsing. Two hundred Mormon missionaries, scattered throughout France had were demoralised by the tragedy and by the chaos in the country.
And that was when Mitt leapt into action, changing his approach to being a missionary
Instead of going door-to-door, as he had been doing, he pitched articles to newspapers about Mormonism, He arranged public slideshows about the United States, showing pictures from missionaries' home towns. He went up to people in bars ( even though as a Mormon, he never drank). He told jokes and laughed along with the bar customers.
Romney's left eye was still badly bruised. He had a cast on his right arm, but he insisted that his fellow missionaries not dwell on the accident. Instead, he said, “Why not try for something great?”
Mormon missionaries are charged with bringing people into their religion. And the deal is sealed when the new convert agrees to be baptised.
Halfway through 1968, the mission in France had performed only 70 baptisms, and the rate was going down because of the tumult.
So Romney and a fellow missionary printed a brochure with the headline, "SET YOUR GOALS." In bold lettering . The pamphlet announced: "The French mission has set its goal: 200 baptisms by Jan. 1st 1969."
"We all bought into that," fellow missionary Byron Hansen, then the mission secretary was to say later. "That became our common goal, our rallying cry."
Romney travelled across France encouraging others. He led conferences and grew comfortable speaking in front of crowds. He sang songs he had written. He used the same techniques he would later rely on while starting an investment firm, while running for governor of Massachusetts:
HHe told his colleagues they had a chance to be a part of something memorable. A chance to make history.
As Dane McBride, a fellow missionary, put it, "It was just impressive to watch him work. He said, 'Guys, we'll look back at this someday when we're 40 years old and be able to say: We did this. That was us.' "
The missionaries easily passed 200 baptisms in 1968, the first time they had reached that number in 10 years. A few months later, a confident t Romney flew home. . He had identified a lofty goal and then achieved it. He was to repeat the strategy again and again - on his way to making millions and running for president.
As well as Paris, Romney had worked in France the port cities of Brest, Le Havre, and Bordeaux . He would get up at 6a.m. to go knocking on doors.
Andre Salarnier, a 79-year-old member of the Mormon chapel in Talence, near Bordeaux, who took the picture of the car that nearly took Romney’s life described the American to a reporter as “"a strapping fellow, very charismatic."
He added, “He often came to eat with us. He loved my wife’s Breton pancakes.”
After attending Brigham Young University - and marrying - Romney was soon back in the Boston area as a Mormon lay leader, giving advice on marriage , divorce, abortion, adoption, addiction, and countless other topics .
From 1981 to 1994, he was a powerful figure in the church. He was bishop of his own congregation. Then as Boston “stake president,” in a region like a Roman Catholic diocese, he was "clergyman, organisation man and defender of the faith," as the Boston Globe put it.
He left his mark in the Boston area - contributing substantially to building the imposing and controversial Boston Temple, on a hilltop near his home in Belmont, outside the city. With a golden angel on its steeple, some locals called it “Mitt’s Temple.”
“Mitt is the type who liked to be called Bishop Romney or President Romney,” said Judy Dushku, a professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston and a Mormon feminist leader told the Boston Globe.
Today the chances are high that the 21-year-old who survived that horrific car crash might just end up being called "President Romney."
Mitt Romney was a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in 1968, driving the husband and wife of his missionary leaders in France when a car driven by a Catholic priest lost control and hit him head on. Mitt's lady passenger was killed and he was so badly injured that a French policeman wrote in his US passport that Romney was dead.
It took months for Romney to heal. In that time he figured out a new and better way for missionaries to get results in France