Americans Join World Summit of French Nations
QUEBEC (AP) _ As a French-speaking power, the United States does not rank with France, Canada or the other 35 nations attending this week’s Francophone Summit. But Americans are nevertheless represented.
From colorful Cajun country in Louisiana and the sedate hills of New England, delegations representing more than 4 million Americans of French descent are special observers at the Quebec meeting.
″We only have one thing in common, and that’s the language,″ said Real Gilbert of New Hampshire, son of an asbestos miner from Quebec and president of the lobby group, Action for Franco-Americans of the Northeast.
He made the comment after learning that a coup had ended the rule of one summit guest, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza of the central African nation of Burundi.
Gilbert lobbied for an unofficial role at the summit, however, because ″this is the first time we’ve been recognized as a francophone community.″
The 18-member delegation was headed by New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a French speaker of Lebanese extraction.
Culture Minister Noelle Leblanc and state Sen. Allen Bares of Lafayette head the seven-member Louisiana group, which has spent its time promoting trade, educational and cultural exchanges with Quebec and other francophone partners.
Invited to official ceremonies and dinners but excluded from formal talks at the second summit of the world’s French territories, both U.S. groups see benefits in promoting francophone solidarity and pride.
″The average Franco-American has to come to grips with his identity,″ said Paul Pare, executive director of the Manchester, N.H.-based action group.
″Our association has taken a radical position,″ he said.
Studies indicate Franco-Americans remain locked in a blue-collar world because of discrimination and low self-esteem, he added.
″Our tradition is Catholic and conservative, values the family and a caring society. We produce nurses and priests and nuns. We also have joie de vivre, like Quebec, but that’s all been neglected,″ Pare said.
Lafayette, on the other hand, staged its first French festival this year, with 37 countries represented, and hopes more tourists will come to sample spicy Cajun cuisine.
″Canadians can visit us in winter and we’ll all come up here in summer,″ said June Taylor, Louisiana’s director of interngovernmental affairs.
″French is a powerful force in the world and it’s something unique we have in Louisiana,″ said Bares, whose mother’s forefathers were French Acadians expelled from eastern Canada by the British in the 18th century.
Many went to the American colonies and ended up in Louisiana, where 1 million of the 4.5 million population is of French origin. ″Cajun″ is a corruption of ″Acadian.″
About half the Cajuns still speak French at home, and a 1985 law required all public school systems to provide French language classes.
Two hundred of the teachers are hired from Quebec, France and Belgium, Bares said.
″We’re trying to get into the stream of things,″ he said of participation in La Francophonie, a loose assembly of nations from Belgium to Vietnam where French is the first or second language.
Starting next year, a French-language cable TV station with programs from Quebec and Europe is scheduled to reach Louisiana.
Quebec is going to help finance a French language contest for students in the northeastern states, said Gilbert, noting that New England and New York State have 3.2 million people of French descent, about 600,000 of them speaking French at home.
Some live in French-majority towns near the Maine-New Brunswick border, while others settled in the suburbs of Boston or fled to Burlington, Vt., after an aborive 1837 French uprising in Canada.
″From Shediac, New Brunswick, to Waltham, Mass., there ought to be a bridge,″ Pare said, referring to the many families with relations on both sides of the border.
″Some of the best Acadian fiddlers are in Massachusetts,″ he added.