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Omaha Speaks French

For nearly 150 years, Nebraska was French. Yet ever since 1803, when the territory was sold to the United States, the French presence has all but disappeared: only a handful of French people live in the state today. Still, a dedicated Francophile community in Omaha champions the French language and contributes to cultural diversity in the Midwest.

On the esplanade of the University of Nebraska in Omaha, three students in shorts kick a football around. Meanwhile, in Classroom 344, five students discuss the nuances of French grammar around a long dark-wood table: definite articles, indefinite articles and partitive articles. Each has a book opened to page 179 and a large cup of coffee. As in a game of ping-pong – the name given to the exercise – group members take turns answering the questions in exercise 5. “Philippe likes salad,” begins Barb, a vivacious retiree. “Therefore he ate salad [il a mangé de la salade].” Silver-haired Kathryn, in a pink T-shirt and denim jacket, adds: “Mademoiselle Lafontaine likes water, therefore she had… water [de l’eau]!” Krissy Abdouch-Stiles congratulates her Level 3B French students. “Great job, guys!

The classroom clock strikes 11:30 on a bright Saturday morning in February.  The second quarter is drawing to a close at Omaha’s Alliance Française, where some forty members attend weekly French lessons. “That’s not a lot,” notes Josselin de Montjoye, one of the instructors. Born near Versailles to a French father and an American mother, the good-natured forty-something teacher has been living in Omaha since the age of 13. “But it’s adequate for an isolated state such as Nebraska.”

Located at the geographic heart of the United States, Nebraska is a fly-over state: New York-San Francisco flights streak across the Omaha sky, but very few passengers stop at Eppley Airfield, the local airport. With a population of 447,000, Omaha is smaller than Atlanta, yet larger than Miami or Toulouse. The 41st largest city in the United States is not known for its beaches or jazz clubs, but rather for its steaks, its slaughterhouses, its investment banks and its insurance companies. Once you drive past the Omaha suburbs, with their light- wood suburban homes, you’re surrounded by meadows – corn fields and roads stretching in perfectly straight lines across the plains. A two-hour drive to Des Moines, three hours to Kansas City, six hours to Saint Louis or Minneapolis, eight hours to Chicago; the 41st city of the United States is an island.

Two hundred French  residents in the area

Though it is the embodiment of rural America, conservative and inward looking, Omaha has always been a crossroads. In the 17th century, Omaha Indians headed up the Missouri and settled in a bend of the river. Later, the city became a meeting place for the carriages heading for the West coast, then the starting point for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. By the end of the 19th century, when slaughterhouses opened up in the south of the city, Omaha had become the capital of the beef industry, employing workers from all over Europe. A third of Nebraska’s residents were of German descent. In 1917, when the United States went to war with Germany, Nebraska replaced German with French in the school curriculum, and Félix Jules Despecher, a dentist born in Orsay in the Essonne, established Omaha’s Alliance Française.

After the two World Wars, French “war brides” married to American soldiers arrived in Omaha and joined the Alliance Française. Today, the city has cast aside its industrial past – a few slaughterhouses survive in the southern suburbs, but the red-brick warehouses of the city center are getting a second life as bars, cafés, restaurants and trendy boutiques. Meanwhile, Omaha is investing in new technologies. Loose labor laws are driving job creation in the state and producing one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country (2.5%).

Most of the 318 members of the Alliance are not from Nebraska originally. Mitzi learned French in Saint Louis, Missouri; Bernard comes from a French-Canadian family in New Hampshire; Jane grew up in San Francisco; David comes from Colorado and was transferred to Omaha; Vitalis is Nigerian; Pierre was born in Morlaix. Cédric Fichepain comes from the Paris area. In 1993, a business degree in hand, he decided to go abroad to learn English. Deciding that there were “too many French people” in England, he opted for the United States. A cousin told him about a language program at a university in Omaha. He looked Nebraska up on a map and packed his bags. Twenty-three years later, Cédric Fichepain still lives in Omaha. He met his American wife in an International Business class, got married, became the father of three boys, and opened a restaurant and two bakeries. Since September 2013, he also serves as Honorary Consul for Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, and administers the 200 or so French residents in the region.

“Correcting stereotypes”

Unlike the French residents of New York or Los Angeles, says Cédric Fichepain, the 152 French citizens registered in Nebraska do not see themselves as expatriates. Many arrived as students, got married and started a family. They have lost their accent, yet give French names to their children; they go back to France in the summers, yet have no plans to leave Omaha. They are Americans, born in France.

Not all of their children speak French.  Since 1986, Omaha, which is twinned with Shizuoka in Japan, offers a bilingual extra-curricular education program approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Yet due to a lack of demand, the program has no French-language equivalent.   The closest bilingual schools are in Kansas City, Saint Louis and Minneapolis. In Omaha, there are only two schools offering classes in French from kindergarten level: the Brownell-Talbot school and the Montessori school, both private. Public schools only offer foreign-language courses from the age of 11 or 12. Still, two public high schools provide the International Baccalaureate option as part of their curriculum. That diploma is not recognized by the French Ministry of Education, but is accepted by most French universities. The mainly French-American families enroll their children in American schools and “manage at home,” explains Cédric Fichepain.

There are only about ten French members of Omaha’s Alliance Française; mostly, the Alliance welcomes Francophile Americans. “Very few of our members were born in France, but all have fallen in love with France,” smiles Anne Marie Kenny, the Alliance’s president since 2012, who became a Francophile singing tunes by Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf in Omaha’s Old Market cafés, and later in Paris, where she lived for ten years. “We try to present a modern face of French culture, while respecting its traditions.” On this year’s program: a screening of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, a conference on the painter Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, a talk on life in France after the 2015 attacks, a picnic in honor of Bastille Day, a pétanque tournament and a Beaujolais Nouveau tasting.

Since it started offering French courses, the Alliance is attracting younger members, and has seen a rise in its membership. Rochelle Rodriguez, a Spanish professor based in a small city two hours west on Interstate 80, goes to Omaha every Saturday morning for her Level 1B course. She learns French in homage to her mother, who “always wanted to learn the language,” but also to encourage the Guadeloupe soccer team, which she follows closely. Vitalis Anyanike comes from Nigeria. A pastor active in two churches in North Omaha, he learned French to communicate with his West African parishioners, a thriving community. Every Sunday, “the services combine African, English and French religious chants!” The highly popular “French for Travellers” workshop also helps broaden the Alliance’s audience. For ninety minutes on Monday evenings, Josselin de Montjoye teaches his students practical French words, and gives them “advice on how to navigate train stations and airports, find inexpensive TGV tickets or use their cellphones in France.” He also regularly battles stereotypes: “No, French waiters are not strange; they are different!”

Towards more online courses

Heading west on Dodge Street, past the home of the billionaire Warren Buffett, is the University of Nebraska campus. On Saturday mornings, cadets from nearby high schools march down the campus paths, a rifle resting on their shoulder.

“French is hanging on, but Spanish is cruising ahead,” worries Juliette Parnell in her office on the third floor of the Arts and Sciences building. In Omaha, 12.5% of households speak Spanish at home. In southern districts of the city, where slaughterhouses find cheap labor among recent Hispanic immigrants, the number reaches 70%. “Conditions have worsened for the French language since I arrived in 1992,” adds the teacher, who was born in Miami and grew up in the Paris area. A drop in enrollment, budget cuts and class closures: Nebraska’s French departments are experiencing similar declines to those experienced at other American universities. To limit spending and boost student enrollment, the university encourages its lecturers to turn to online French teaching. Civilization and literature are particularly suited to distance learning.  Since last summer, Juliette Parnell teaches her “Reading in French” course online. She is now interested in using new technologies to promote spoken French in her online classes. “In four or five years, it will be possible!”

Many students also combine French with other subjects as part of an increasingly popular wave of double degrees: French-Political Science, French-History, French-Biotechnology, etc. The “Business French” course started by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the University of Nebraska is “extremely popular.” The same is true of Creighton University, a private institution in central Omaha, where the majority of French courses are taught today as part of a double degree. Formerly an arts-oriented Jesuit institution, the university invests substantially in business, law, medicine, and sports to stay competitive and attract students from neighboring states. In 2014, the French program was cut in half. Thomas Coffey sighs in his dusty office. Since 1977, he teaches French, but also German and Spanish. “The students don’t come here for languages anymore, but for the vocational schools.”

“Filling that void”

French still remains a language of choice in Nebraska – just behind Spanish, and on a par with German, in secondary schools.  When Mitzi Friedman retired from Westside High School in 2013, her position was immediately filled.  That same year, Omaha’s colleges and public high schools hired five new French teachers.  Five new openings have already been announced for the new school year in September 2016. The opposite trend can be observed in Nebraska’s small, isolated cities, where schools are not always able to replace retiring teachers.  French classes are stopping as a result. “It seems enough for the school to offer Spanish classes,” sighs Mitzi Friedman. “We try to create something to fill that void.”

The French presence in Nebraska has not disappeared entirely. On some weekend nights, in the kitchen of a cottage in the West Omaha suburbs, about twenty guests share wheat pancakes and speak French, while echoes of a Ravel concerto can be heard across the plain, being performed in an auditorium in the city center.

Article published in the April 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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