Ties That Bind: French Culture in Louisiana and Beyond

Students participating in the Paris May Module gather for a group photo in front of the Palace of Versailles.

More than 250 million people speak French worldwide. French is Europe’s second most widely spoken language and the official language of 29 countries. If population growth continues on its current trajectory, the Organisation International de la Francophonie estimates that French speakers will top over 700 million by 2050. When including those who are partial French speakers, Jean Claude-Brunet, Consulate of France in New Orleans, believes that figure balloons exponentially:

“In less than 40 years from now, one billion people in the world will speak French, thanks in particular to the African continent.”

Currently, membership in the francophonie, i.e. French-speaking countries, is tied to 15 percent of the world’s wealth, and French is the second most widely spoken language in Europe ahead of English. The depth and breadth with which French reaches all corners of the world has led the United States to focus on its international relations with its main hub, France.

The United States and France are poised to further strengthen their centuries-long alliance following a State visit from the President of the French Republic François Hollande in February. Prior to Hollande’s visit, the last visit to the United States from a French Head of State was in 1996. Hollande and President Barack Obama penned an op-ed, drawing attention to the nations’ shared ideals:

“We address global challenges that no country can tackle alone…We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests... for more than two centuries, our two peoples have stood together for our mutual freedom. Now we are meeting our responsibilities not just to each other—but to a world that is more secure because our enduring alliance is being made new again.”

These reasons, among many others, are why the Consul General urges Louisiana to pursue its investment in the francophonie.

Louisiana has struggled with maintaining its French heritage and identity since its inception as a state in 1812. The erasure of Louisiana’s unique French culture was nearly accomplished through a 1921 measure prohibiting the use of any language except English in public schools. According to numerous accounts, students who had been raised in local French traditions and for whom French was a primary language were publicly shamed for speaking French. Census data reported a steep decline in the use of the French language among young people in Louisiana around World War II due to these trends.

Reversing the Trend

To address the decline of Louisiana’s French culture, the Louisiana legislature established CODOFIL in 1968 with the central focus being to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic, and touristic benefit of the state.” At the same time, the Louisiana legislature also passed an act requiring public schools to provide five years of French language instruction in elementary schools and three years at the secondary level. The authority of this legislation was enhanced by a 1973 constitutional amendment granting Louisiana cultural groups the right to express themselves in languages of their choice, thus reversing the earlier law dictating the exclusive use of English in many public settings.

The decline of French language and culture transmission from generation to generation as well as the decreased use of the language in social settings made growing the number of French speakers in the state an immediate concern for CODOFIL. In 1972, CODOFIL instituted a statewide French language program in schools that has evolved to include 30 immersion schools at the elementary and middle school level in which core subjects except English are taught in French. Every immersion school program has a waiting list today.

Former Louisiana Commissioner of Education and current CODOFIL president William Arceneaux H’12 attributes the state’s reversal to evolving attitudes nationwide.

“Just as Louisiana joined the push for assimilation in the 1920s by adopting English-only amendments, the move throughout the United States in the 1960s to empower ethnic minorities and celebrate diversity led to a resurgent pride in our French heritage among Louisiana citizens,” said Arceneaux.

Although recruiting instructors for the immersion programs from outside of Louisiana brought some criticism, Arceneaux explains that it was a matter of necessity rather than choice. Fifty years of suppressing the French language had left few in Louisiana with the necessary credentials. He remembers the arrival of the first group of international CODOFIL teachers and the greeting of first CODOFIL President James Domengeaux.

“He told them that we looked forward to the day when we would no longer need them,” reported Arceneaux. “That day still has not arrived, but the Escadrille Louisiane is a step in that direction.”

Educating Educators

Escadrille Louisiane is a post-graduate program developing young college graduates to be French teachers in Louisiana. The program takes its name from the Escadrille Lafayette, a group of 200 Louisiana aviators commissioned as officers in the French army during World War I. Arceneaux conceived Escadrille Louisiane as a way to increase the number of Louisiana teachers qualified to deliver French language instruction in the state’s schools.

The Escadrille program makes it possible for students from a variety of academic disciplines to spend a year teaching in Rennes, France, while working toward a master of arts in teaching (MAT) from Centenary. In exchange for financial aid, graduates commit to teaching in French in Louisiana immersion or secondary schools for three years. Centenary’s vibrant French program and established connections with both CODOFIL and the French government made its MAT program a natural choice as the inaugural American academic partner for Escadrille Louisiane.

State budgetary concerns that led to a $100,000 cut in CODOFIL funding in 2012 threatened the program, but supporters rallied and raised money to keep the program going. Funding has been restored in this year’s budget, and the partnership continues, with nine Centenary Escadrille Louisiane graduates now teaching in Louisiana and eight candidates scheduled to return from Rennes in May to complete their MAT requirements.

Concern for Louisiana French

Centenary’s involvement in promoting Louisiana’s francophone culture precedes and extends beyond Escadrille Louisiane, particularly through the activities of its Heritage Press. Having already established the country’s only student-run French language newspaper, Le Tintamarre, French Professor and Honorary French Consul for North Louisiana Dana Kress submitted a proposal to the Louisiana Board of Regents in 2002 focused on recovering American literature published in Louisiana’s heritage languages: French, Spanish, and German. The project ultimately grew into the Heritage Press, which publishes works of American literature authored in languages other than English.

Centenary’s Heritage Press complements the efforts of CODOFIL and grassroots organizations working to preserve regional French. Though standard French is often the language of instruction in the state’s immersion programs, it sometimes differs from the regional French spoken by Louisiana’s francophone populations. The various forms of French spoken in Louisiana, collectively referred to as Louisiana French, reflect the language as spoken over the years by a number of groups including Creoles, Creoles of Color, Cajuns, and Native Americans, particularly the Houmas and Chitimachas. Just as instructing students in standard French is important for strengthening global connections, promoting the use and appreciation of Louisiana French is vital to reinvigorating and preserving the French heritage cultures of Louisiana.

Recently, Kress noticed an increase in the number of contemporary works being submitted for publication. He credits this shift in part to the work of the Press itself.

“Seeing historical texts published in their heritage language demonstrated to speakers of Louisiana french that their language and their culture have value,” said Kress. “Authors writing in Louisiana French are submitting manuscripts for publication in a variety of genres. It is very moving to read these expressions of a people’s experience in their own language.”

Creating Synergy

Although some perceive programs utilizing standard French as separate from, and in some instances in competition with, those seeking to preserve Louisiana French, Arceneaux believes otherwise.

“Three French Cajun bands that I know of have been started by students from our immersion school programs,” explained Arceneaux. “Rather than divorcing them from their Louisiana French culture, their exposure to standard French has fostered an appreciation for that heritage and provided them with the tools to sustain it. It is not a circumstance I foresaw, but I’m encouraged by it.”

A blog post from New Orleans native Rémi Pastorek, a student in the second Escadrille Louisiane class, shares another example of the intercultural synergy. During his year studying in Rennes, he attended an accordion festival where Southwest Louisiana musicians performed.

“After a few minutes, he was there, the famous accordionist Steve Riley with his band Racine. I was dreaming. Here I was, miles away from Louisiana, and I felt like I was at a dance hall in Breaux Bridge. They played, we danced, and we all let the good times roll.

Yeah, I love France, but we are always given some sort of reminder that Louisiana is our heart, our life.”

Centenary in Paris

Students entering Centenary in fall 2014 will be given their own opportunity to embrace francophonie when they begin their college experience with immersive study in Paris, France. Called Centenary in Paris, this initiative is a meaningful way to introduce students to Centenary and its rich history in Louisiana and long-standing ties to France.

“In my experience, Centenary must be the first in the nation to do this,” said Arceneaux. “This unprecedented decision to send the entire freshman class to Paris will place the College in the international spotlight and result in bringing much-needed attention to Louisiana and its efforts to promote its French language heritage. This initiative can only be described in one way: formidable.

New Centenary students will begin and end their first course on campus with 8-10 days in between spent in France’s capital city. Students will be able to engage others’ cultures in a hostel-styled facility that specializes in hosting international youth while taking courses that cover a variety of topics from Paris Noir—Black Americans in the City of Light to The French Connection: Business in Paris.

Speaking in a recent address to Centenary students, Consul General Brunet encouraged those who may visit France:
“I have really only one main message I would like to pass on to the students who visit our country: open your eyes, your ears, and discover Paris.”

Parlez-vous Français?

In June 2014, President Obama will travel to Normandy in remembrance of D-Day, marking the 70th anniversary alongside French President François Hollande. This will be the second visit for the national leaders in the span of a few months.

“Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables) did not visit your country, but he dreamed of a ‘United States of Europe,’ which would be built on precisely the core values that are found in the American experience and in the values of the democracy in France and Europe,” said Brunet. “A hundred and fifty years later, this dream is definitely coming nearer than ever, and France and the United States are key partners to help foster this transatlantic relationship.”

Whether through the Heritage Press, Escadrille Louisiane, or Centenary in Paris, Centenary leaders are working toward preparing for this global community—a multilingual community in which the French language is prominent. Monsieur Brunet believes that this is a boon to not only Louisiana but also France, telling students,

“Vous êtes en fait légitimement partie de l’histoire culturelle profonde entre la France et la Louisiane...Français n’est certainement pas une langue étrangère en Louisiane.”

“You are indeed a legitimate part of the deep-rooted cultural history between Louisiana and France…French is definitely not a foreign language in Louisiana.”

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