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ROCHEFORT, France (Reuters) - A replica of the warship that carried France's Marquis de Lafayette to help American colonists in their war of independence sets sail for the United States on Saturday, symbolic of a historic moment that binds the two nations.
Lafayette crossed the Atlantic on the original Hermione in 1780 to tell his friend George Washington, commander of the American insurgents against British imperial rule, that France was sending a strong military force to help them.
The replica fired its cannons as it sailed up the French river Charente on Saturday to the military shipyards of Rochefort, where both vessels were built.
French President Francois Hollande paid a brief visit to the warship, which was due to set sail later in the day.
The new Hermione has been under construction since 1997 and cost 25 million euros ($27 million) to build. It will head for Yorktown, Virginia, where Lafayette and his forces played a critical part in a decisive battle against the British.
"I feel it’s important that this boat is remembered as more than just a modern recreation, that it represents the historical boat as well," said Adam Hodges-LeClaire, a U.S. citizen, history student and one of the 80-strong crew aboard the 1.2 ton warship.
Hodges-LeClaire had made his own period costume to wear during the voyage.
The frigate is due to arrive in Yorktown on June 5 for a two-month tour of key locations in the American Revolution, including Annapolis, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City.
To the American independence movement of the time, Lafayette - whose full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert de Motier de Lafayette - was 'our Marquis'.
Although an aristocrat who persuaded King Louis XVI into sending military help to Washington's men, Lafayette also maintained a civic role after the king and much of the French nobility had been executed in France's own revolution, which began in 1789, less than a decade after his voyage.
The two countries sealed their friendship almost a century after Lafayette's voyage with the 1876 inauguration of the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York harbor, a gift from the French people to commemorate the centenary of the declaration of independence.
Since then, Franco-U.S. military and diplomatic relations have ebbed and flowed, hitting a recent low point when France opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
More recently, France resisted, then gave in to pressure from the United States, its NATO ally, to delay the delivery of a helicopter-carrying warship to Russia due to the Ukraine crisis.
Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Gareth Jones