What if “Franco-responsibility” was the key to guaranteeing the future of the French language in Louisiana? This new term was coined in Quebec to describe a simple goal — increasing the use of French in daily life.
On Wednesday evenings in Lafayette, Louisiana, almost every customer in the Blue Moon Saloon speaks French. Everyone meets at 7 pm for the French conversation group and stays for the Cajun Jam, an open-mic session for Francophone musicians. The waitress, Breanne Billeaud, studied at Lafayette High School — one of the 26 dual-language immersion schools in the state.
The Blue Moon Saloon features on the interactive map of businesses, institutions, and other companies offering services in French in Louisiana. There are currently 90 addresses listed, including a travel agency in New Iberia, an architecture firm, three cafes and nine restaurants in Lafayette, the sheriff’s office in Abbeville, and a bicycle rental business in New Orleans.
This online directory was launched by the CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, and aims to “encourage Louisianans to speak French outside the home,” says Marguerite Perkins, the project coordinator. The other objective is to “create a link between French and the economy,” and encourage the recruitment of Francophone employees.
A Strategy for Economic Development
The idea that businesses also have a role to play in defending the French language is a recent one. In 2009, a hotel in Quebec became the “first Franco-responsible establishment in the Americas,” and launched a movement that has since spread to Vermont and New Hampshire. In these northeastern states, French signs in storefront windows offer a warm “Bienvenue” to visitors from Quebec. And this economic development strategy is paying dividends.
However, nothing of the sort exists in Louisiana. “I was recently giving a presentation on the potential of French to a group of tourism professionals in New Orleans, and none of them had heard of the dual-language teaching programs or the state’s membership with the IOF,” says Joseph Dunn, director of the CODOFIL from 2011 through 2014. “There is an enormous amount of work to do to raise awareness among Louisianans and show them the opportunities provided by French.”
Joseph Dunn now works as a public relations consultant for the Laura Plantation, located an hour’s drive west of New Orleans. The site offers three daily visits in French, and Francophones make up 20% of visitor numbers. In financial terms, that translates into an estimated 500,000 dollars per year. “Make the effort to recruit Francophone employees and offer services in French, and people will come,” says Joseph Dunn. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Living History & Folk Life Park in Vermilionville and the Acadian Village in Lafayette, the Houmas House in Darrow, and the Whitney Plantation in Edgard also organize visits in French. But it is still not enough. “I suggested tax incentives for businesses hiring French-speaking employees a few years ago, but the authorities dismissed the idea,” says Joseph Dunn. “Louisianans are scared of promoting their roots. This attitude is not part of our culture in America, where the concept of linguistic minority is less developed than amongst French speakers in Canada.”
Franco-Responsibility, a Way for Everyone to Contribute
Marguerite Perkins, head of community development at the CODOFIL, is working on a smaller scale. When she is not listing Francophone bakeries, doctors, and lawyers, she is working with companies to explain how to focus more on French. This includes translating their websites, brochures, and menus, printing bilingual receipts, and signing off emails in French. “It’s doable,” she says. “We can do so many small things to create a Franco-responsible environment.”
Most Francophones in Louisiana are campaigning to boost the visibility of their language but opinion is divided on strategy. Some say the focus should be on “encouraging the hiring of Francophones in cultural and tourist institutions,” while others think this is too excessive and that “the Francophone identity of companies will develop naturally.” Joseph Dunn believes there is no time to lose, fearing that “without any jobs available in French, students from the dual-language immersion programs will leave Louisiana.”