“Every Alliance Française Is a Little Piece of France”

Think of it as a “French language and culture multinational,” with headquarters on Boulevard Raspail in Paris and 840 branches in 133 countries, including 106 in the U.S. Welcome to the Alliance Française! Founded 140 years ago, the institution is the focus of a new documentary, Alliance(s) Française(s), available on TV5MONDEplus with an exclusive screening at the French embassy in Washington D.C. on November 20. Isabelle Leroux, president of the Federation of Alliances Françaises U.S.A. and member of the board of directors of the Alliance Française in Miami, and Hamza Djimli, Alliances Françaises coordinator at the French embassy, shared their views on this unique network of cultural influence.
The New Orleans Alliance Française on Jackson Avenue. © Alliance Française de La Nouvelle-Orléans

France-Amérique: The Alliance Française was founded in Paris in 1883 by a group of diplomats and intellectuals, including Jules Verne and Louis Pasteur. Its original objective was the “propagation of the French language in the colonies and abroad,” and the organization quickly spread to Tunisia, India, and even the United States, where the first branch was launched in San Francisco in 1889. How do you explain this enthusiastic response?

Isabelle Leroux: There has always been a very good relationship between France and the United States. Americans are major Francophiles with a great interest in and deep respect for French history and culture, its philosophy, and its literature. The Age of Enlightenment also made a distinct impression on them. Today, the Alliances Françaises cover almost the entire U.S. territory. It is the world’s largest network in terms of number of branches and revenue, and the third largest in terms of the number of learners, totaling 24,000 per year!

Who are the people who take classes at the Alliance Française?

Isabelle Leroux: Most come to us through a personal interest. Some are motivated by their jobs, and others want to learn their partner’s language. There is a huge age range, and we’re welcoming more and more young people – which is great! – although our core target group remains educated adults who can afford to travel and who love France. The profile of our students depends very much on the time of day. In the morning and the afternoon, we welcome those who have time on their hands, such as retired people for instance. At lunchtime and in the evenings, we see more working people. And all these profiles come together at our cultural events.

Hamza Djimli: French certifications and exams, which enable American students to continue their studies in France for example, help Alliances Françaises reach a younger audience.

In Antoine Rivière’s documentary, viewers will see that French is a professional asset, “a résumé highlight,” whether in India, Argentina, or Madagascar. Is this also the case in the United States?

Hamza Djimli: Absolutely, as French is the third most in-demand language on the U.S. job market. In fact, we offer a highly successful Professional French course for teachers. It enables the Alliances to meet the demands of their learners who need French for work, and also gives them the opportunity to offer classes to American companies with ties to France.

The Alliance Française network around the world. © Flair Production

French culture is often criticized for being too elitist and backward-looking in the United States. How is the Alliance Française tackling this cliché and making its offering more acceptable?

Isabelle Leroux: I don’t think that’s an obstacle. It’s true that the Federation’s program can be demanding. For example, one conference will be by Académie Française member Antoine Compagnon on the theme of “Proust vs. Colette,” but there is an audience for these subjects in the United States. However, we have presented Sylvie Bigar’s book Cassoulet Confessions! in which the author uses this popular recipe to take readers on a journey to discover Southwest France. We also organized a cycle of events paying tribute to director Jean-Pierre Melville, with the screening of four movies followed by a conversation with his nephews. We have to satisfy all niches, so we alternate between demanding and more mainstream subjects.

What recommendations would you give to smaller Alliances Françaises that have fewer resources or that aren’t lucky enough to be located in a major, Francophile city?

Hamza Djimli: My first piece of advice would be to make their organization more solid. The Alliances Françaises rely heavily on volunteers and the personal investment of board members and the president – which is a rather fragile model. They also need to ensure reliable succession, regularly renew the board, and define a multi-year strategy for the future. My second piece of advice would be to emphasize cultural events, which strengthen social bonds between members. The greatest asset of every Alliance is its ability to bring together people who wouldn’t have ordinarily met in their daily lives; people with a wide range of cultural, economic, and social backgrounds. This local, unifying effect is very powerful. In fact, this was the subject of much debate during the pandemic: Would going online change the Alliances Françaises’ identity and their socio-cultural mission?

Isabelle Leroux: The power of having roots in the local community should not be underestimated. I saw this demonstrated once again in October, at the annual convention of the American Alliances in Atlanta. Some of the smaller Alliances Françaises have impressive cultural programs and even organize fundraising events. I’m not going to paint an idyllic picture; as I said in my introductory speech at the convention, there are many challenges still to be faced!

What are the current challenges for the Alliances Françaises?

Isabelle Leroux: The first challenge for smaller Alliances is teaching. It’s hard to set up a rigorous program for a small number of students. We also have difficulty recruiting French teachers. And we know that we’re going to have to deal with artificial intelligence – we’re actually preparing a series of roundtables on the subject. During the pandemic, we proved our resilience and ability to respond quickly by successfully implementing online classes and events; it’s up to us to do the same with AI and new e-learning technologies. If used wisely, these tools have their advantages. The second challenge is that each Alliance Française is an independent economic entity, a small business with salaries to pay and bills to settle, supported by dedicated volunteers. Some have problems with offices, rising rents, and members impacted by the current crisis. You don’t sign up for a French class if you can’t put food on the table. However, ours is a dynamic network and, despite these economic challenges, most Alliances in the United States do make a profit.

Have any new branches recently been opened in the United States?

Hamza Djimli: The latest branch to open was in Reno, Nevada. It was active in the 1960s-1980s and was relaunched in December 2022. We have also received information requests from Massachusetts, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Montana, a state that is attracting more and more residents from San Francisco and Seattle. But this isn’t a numbers game. The National Coordination and the Federation support the Alliances in a number of areas, including the organization and running of French classes, designing cultural programs, hosting exam sessions, and managing premises. The Federation also hosts internal webinars on human resources, diversity, how to retain teaching staff, and how to set up a successful film club, but it is difficult to develop such a heterogeneous, disparate network. Today, we’re encouraging closer ties between local branches. For example, Denver has a satellite branch in Boulder, Atlanta has one in Roswell, and New York City’s is in Montclair, New Jersey.

The Alliance Française headquarters in Paris. © Flair Production

What would you respond to critics who claim that France has lost its influence?

Hamza Djimli: I have a problem with this term, which harks back to the days of France’s colonial empire. I’d rather talk about influences, in the plural. In terms of cooperation, we consider that two connected countries influence each other, regardless of the country. Today, we’re focusing more on soft power, which is something of a French specialty. What other country has such a well-developed cultural network, present in every corner of the world? I wouldn’t say that France is losing influence, at least not in the cultural sphere. The Villa Albertine program is proof of this. The idea of recreating the Villa Médicis in Rome and sending artists, creators, and academics to ten American cities is an extraordinary one. On a local level, the Alliances Françaises are also lucky enough to be in contact with the residents, which helps them to organize conferences in partnership with consulates and the embassy’s cultural services, for example. The influence may have changed, but France is still very much present and appreciated.

Beyond France, the Alliance Française now promotes Francophone cultures as a whole. What did this shift involve?

Isabelle Leroux: We are developing partnerships with Quebec, Africa, and the Alliances Françaises in the Caribbean, and we offer special events during Francophonie Month in March. Last October, we also organized a discussion with Congolese artist Francklin Mbungu, who was exhibiting his work in a Washington D.C. gallery. We try to be as representative as possible.

Hamza Djimli: Many Alliances rely on local French-speaking communities. This is the case in Houston, home to the largest Vietnamese diaspora outside Vietnam, and in Miami, which has a strong Haitian influence.

Linguist Bernard Cerquiglini, who is interviewed in the documentary, refers to the “Alliance Française spirit.” How would you define it?

Isabelle Leroux: Humanistic values. That’s what came out of the Alliance Française’s 140th anniversary convention this summer. I could also mention the quality of our teaching, the diversity of our cultural programs, our warm welcome, and even the crêpes! That’s what the Alliance Française is all about. We don’t all go straight home after a conference, but instead we meet up for a drink to continue the conversation. We offer the chance to learn French, but also to practice and experience it through our events. An Alliance Française is a little piece of France.

Hamza Djimli: Emancipation through culture and education. I often work in the library at the Alliance Française in Washington D.C., and throughout the day, people spontaneously sit down next to me and start a conversation. They’re always very different people. I love the social, human side to our work!

Alliance(s) Française(s)
is currently available on TV5MONDEplus.

The documentary will also be screened at the French embassy in Washington D.C. on November 20.