We often forget that Pennsylvania Avenue, the most famous thoroughfare in Washington D.C. and the setting for incoming U.S. presidents to celebrate their electoral victories, is actually French! Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a young Parisian engineer who fought alongside Lafayette, was asked by George Washington to design the new capital of the United States. In 1791, he drew up ambitious plans for a vast city, which required a certain imagination. The site chosen for the project was covered in forest, swampland, and fields. L’Enfant was soon removed from the project, but the city we know today owes a lot to his pioneering vision: a grid system interspersed with plazas and large roads such as Pennsylvania Avenue, a direct link between the “Congress House” (the Capitol) perched on a hill and the “President’s House” (the White House), and a “public promenade” lined with trees leading to the Potomac River – the future National Mall.
This French influence can still be felt today, from the placenames (Lafayette Square, L’Enfant Plaza, Rochambeau Bridge) to the architecture of the White House, which looks strangely like the Château de Rastignac in Dordogne. There is even a key to the Bastille exhibited at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s residence outside the capital. There are also several famous Francophone inhabitants, including the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and the secretary of state Antony Blinken. Officially, the city and its suburbs are home to just over 10,000 French people, although the actual numbers are probably far higher. “We have this image of an administrative city with French people working at the embassy or for international institutions,” says François Penguilly, the consul general of France in Washington. “But overall, the community is quite young and far more diverse in terms of its origins and professions.”
Alongside those working for major companies such as Sodexo and Airbus, there are also florists, National Institutes of Health scientists, IMF economists, attorneys, and, of course, restauranteurs. Washington certainly has a penchant for French delicacies, as shown by the success of Florent de Felcourt. This business-minded former naval officer purchased a small, Dijon-based company specialized in commercial baking equipment several years ago. “The challenges are the same as on a warship,” says the engineer. “There are lots of machines, maintenance, and solutions to be found in a store.” There is also a need for a keen sense of logistics, from dough to delivery. Florent de Felcourt, who had been frustrated by the lack of good bread while previously living as an expat in Washington, wanted “to bring both worlds together.” He decided to sell his company, and in 2013 he opened the first Fresh Baguette in Bethesda, a Maryland suburb. He has been going from strength to strength ever since, with sales growing more than 30% every year. He now has five bakeries, and last year produced two million croissants and 500,000 baguettes for the public and more than 200 private clients, many of which are cafés. And this is just the beginning. The Dijon native has countless projects up his sleeve, including building a new production site three times the size of the current one, launching a catering service, and opening some 20 additional bakeries. “America is an incredible ecosystem for businesses,” he says. “Washington is perfect for the development of Fresh Baguette. Everyone here has traveled, and customers often tell me: ‘I save an airline ticket every time I buy a croissant.’”
A Capital in the Countryside
Aside from its love of baguettes, the District of Columbia has another major advantage: “Living here is great. We have an amazing quality of life, and the city isn’t cramped,” says Florent de Felcourt. This sentiment is echoed by the rest of the French community – Washington is a capital in the countryside. “I love how close we are to nature and vast, open spaces,” says Stéphanie Guérin. “When we arrived here ten years ago, we were real urban Parisians. Since then, I have changed the way I live; I work out, I go on hikes – it has been a total transformation,” says the mother-of-two who lives near Rock Creek Park, the city’s main green space. Stéphanie Guérin is already very involved in the French community, and recently had the original idea of launching a mobile children’s library. When everything closed at the start of the pandemic, she collected books from the Alliance Française, the Washington Accueil organization, and the Lycée Rochambeau. She sorted through them in her garage and, with the help of volunteers, made boxes of around 30 books organized by age group, from babies to 16-year-olds. Families without access to stories in French can use this service before passing on the boxes to other parents. “The books are now living their own lives,” says Stéphanie Guérin. Some 2,000 books are now traveling around the region – and sometimes as far afield as Africa.
The Mamans Autour de D.C. (MADC) conversation group is another unique initiative in the United States. When Stéphanie Kamaruzzaman followed her husband to the U.S. capital in 2001, she felt “quite lost.” Speaking to us at the Paris in Town café in Bethesda, she remembers that “there was very little information or help online.” With 25 other moms, she created a Google group. “Our objective was to help each other out, stay connected, and meet other French women. We had no budget to speak of, and grew thanks to word-of-mouth.” The organization has since become a hugely popular network focused on mutual help, exchanges, and conversations on all sorts of topics, including politics. “The group was really useful during Covid, for finding information about which tests to do before taking the plane, for example,” says Stéphanie Kamaruzzaman, a former consular advisor. Today, MADC has some 3,000 members, and not just mothers.
Culture, Philanthropy, and French Classes
Washington is less of a dream destination than San Francisco or New York. The federal capital has a reputation for being an austere, provincial city, yet it has transformed over the last 20 years. “There is a whole host of new neighborhoods and fantastic restaurants ,” says Eve Chauchard, who moved there more than 15 years ago. “I really love D.C. It’s a human-sized city with lots of green spaces and all the advantages of a capital’s culture scene. There are multiple museums, most of which are free, and I can go to three concerts a day without having to reserve months in advance! We aren’t Manhattan, but it’s far from being a boring place to live!” Even Emmanuel Macron has been here twice! In early December, during his last state visit, he almost bumped into singer Stromae, who was performing a sold-out gig in one of the city’s music venues. “We have everything we need here,” says Eve Chauchard, president of the Comité Tricolore, a federation of French and Francophile organizations. Demonstrating the energy of the French community, it now has 24 members – including Washington Accueil, the local Alliance Française, a pétanque club, and an Alsace association – and organizes annual events such as en plein air lunches and Bastille Day celebrations, the profits from which are used to help families in need.
The Comité Tricolore also works with the French embassy to support Friendship Place, a charity that cares for homeless people. Founded by American volunteers more than 30 years ago, it has been directed since 2006 by Jean-Michel Giraud, a pillar of the French community in Washington. Under his guidance, the organization has continued to grow and is now a major player in the region. When the current director first arrived, the charity only worked to find homes for single adults who had not consumed drugs or alcohol for at least six months. This rule meant that many homeless people were not eligible for help. Jean-Michel Giraud and his team developed the model to make it more inclusive. “We focus on people and their independence. The leases are in their names and they are responsible for their homes,” he says. Driven by this pioneering approach, Friendship Place slowly expanded its rehousing offering to families and veterans, and has also provided employment services since the 2008 financial crisis. “Other aid programs first offer training, followed by work. We reversed the order by helping people to find a job quickly to stop them from falling down the social ladder. Once they start working again, they regain self-confidence and are able to take on training courses.” This is another new philosophy which Jean-Michel Giraud, who is specialized in psychiatric reeducation, is trying to promote. Friendship Place has helped 35,000 people since 1991 – including 4,200 in 2022 – and its renowned model is now being replicated elsewhere.
Many expats have moved to Washington and never left. This is what happened to Nadine Robert, who arrived 20 years ago with three young children. One of the first challenges was to continue teaching her kids French. She tried everything, including home schooling using cassette tapes created by the CNED, a French government-led distance learning platform. However, this method failed to motivate her family, and the service took too long to return their graded homework. She then bought a Bled grammar textbook and tried to immerse her children in the joys of the subjunctive tense – with little success – before hiring an expensive tutor. Finally, with four other families, she decided to launch Saturday classes, mimicking the German model, which is a solution also used by people of other nationalities with children in the American school system. “I wanted my little ones to discover their country’s literature, culture, and language,” says Nadine Robert. People dismissed her, saying that she would never be able to create a program equivalent to a French third- or sixth-grade class. But they underestimated this former attorney. In 2013, My French Classes opened with 68 students from kindergarten to seventh grade. Today, there are more than 400 pupils across all grades up to the end of high school, making it one of the biggest organizations of its kind in the United States. “I had no experience, but I ended up as a school principal,” says Nadine Robert. “I wasn’t planning on it. I had three children and a job, but I put my all into it because I wanted to create a comprehensive project that I could be proud of.” When asked what she misses about France in Washington, she replies with a smile: “Nothing! I’ve recreated everything we didn’t have.”