Language Matters

Kathleen Stein Smith, Ph.D

Interview with Guillaume Lacroix, Consul General of France to the Midwest in Chicago — A Guest Post

I am honored today to have the opportunity to continue the conversation about languages and cultures and their role in our lives with Guillaume Lacroix, Consul General of France to the Midwest in Chicago.

Lacroix photo 05-02-20

I have read about many of your activities here in the US since you assumed your current role in 2017 — frequently travelling our vast Midwestern states, speaking with students at educational institutions and with business groups, and honoring US veterans who served in France. Please describe your experiences and impressions of Americans and of the long-standing friendship between the people of our two nations.

Our relations are strong and probably stronger than we think. Chicago is my second posting in the United States. I had a first experience in Washington DC, fifteen years ago. I was stationed there for almost 5 years. The diplomatic relations were good, with mutual trust and candor like old friends have, even when they do not agree on everything, and that was the case back then in 2004-2009. I could see the relations at the federal level, only at that level. Here, in the Midwest, I have a different perspective. I can see first-hand of the intensity and the variety of our relations, at every level.

I can see measure the depth of our relations in big cities with international airports that have non-stop flights to France (pre-coronavirus era…). I can see that also in small towns and rural communities. The intensity of our relations is there but one does not always notice it.

Two examples come to my mind: in West Bend, Wisconsin, one important company in the community is Manitou. Well, Manitou is a forklifts manufacturer headquartered in Ancenis, in the Pays de La Loire region. West Bend is their American HQ. In Batesville, Indiana, the big company there is Hill-Rom, the medical device manufacturer. Well, Hill-Rom has a strong presence in Pluvigner, Britanny. In the heart of Indiana, somewhere halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, in a small town that reminds of the fictional “Hawkins” of the series “Stranger Things”, I have met individuals who are familiar with the name “Pluvigner” – while I wasn’t. Travelling across the Midwest helps me know better my French geography!

I could mention French investments in the cheese industry in Illinois or in the malt industry in Wisconsin (malt! not grape)… I could speak about the French multinational automotive firm in Indiana that product the exhaust system (and the sound) of the Ford Mustang. I could mention the many successful experiences of the Medtech industry or agro firms from Minnesota in France. I could go on and on. A last one: I have had fascinating discussions with agricultural equipment providers in Fargo, North Dakota, who have a very intimate knowledge of the machinery dealing system in France or display an intimate familiarity with the numbers of the beet production in Picardy or Normandy.

I am mentioning here stories of human connections that are the positive offshoot of business relations. I could also mention the many classrooms that I have visited, the Veterans’ homes, the campuses, the museums, etc where equally exciting stories are told.

What is your role in that context…. ?

My job is about outreach to and mobilization of the actors of France-US relations in the Midwest: the French community, the Francophone community that plays an indispensable role in the fields of education, culture and community organizing as well as the Francophile community.

I give a large definition to the word “Francophile”. By that, I mean all the people who in a form or another have affinities or simply connections with France: business, education, research, innovation, tourism. To me, honeymooners in Paris are Francophiles, even if they do not see it that way. Proud families of WWII veterans are Francophiles. Families of kids who take French at school are Francophiles, even if they have never visited France. Notre-Dame admirers – and they are millions in America – are Francophiles. These communities are the pillars of our relations. Without them, our diplomatic relations would be an empty shell.

While this side of our relations is a little bit under the radar, it is actually the one that creates more solidarity among us. Promoting it helps me fulfill the core of my mission: develop people-to-people connections that will outlast my tenure here. The connections to updated or developed are not only the ones between Chicago and Paris or Lexington and Deauville who are all sister cities. They are the ones to invented, furthered or sustained, between the lesser known communities in Midwest and the lesser known communities in France.

What are the challenges … ?

What I see everywhere, in Kentucky, Ohio or South Dakota, is good feelings about France. I think we enjoy a good image. It is important to be identified. The worst for us would be to be lacking name recognition. I think it is better to have sometimes a mixed image than no image at all. Since America’s independence we have always wanted to be recognized by you. There have been ups and downs in the image of America in France but one thing is sure: we love to visit your country, we love your music, your movies and we want to matter to you.

In addition to our very good image, I sense there is a good level of curiosity and expectations which is important because we are here to do things, not just enjoy the legacy of a strong relation.  I also sense a growing, competitive environment for French influence. Our relations as oldest allies is unmatched but our relationship is not a given. We have to adjust and be on the offense, not the defense.

Our gratitude to the WWII soldiers who risked everything for our freedom is forever. That creates an indestructible bond between us. Every Legion of Honor ceremony for veterans brings me tears of joy, humility and gratitude. But if we do not prepare the future, there is a risk that our relation will not be exceptional forever. This is the best thing we can do to honor the living members of America’s Greatest Generation of Omaha Beach. They so magnificently embody the ties – “à la vie à la mort” we would say in French – between our two nations. While we are being loyal to our past, we must reinvent the new solidarities between us, for the generations to come.

Business is growing. Investment, on both sides, is growing. French companies are often in the Top 4 or 5 of foreign largest employers in the Midwestern States. It is important. It needs to be better advertised. But it is not sufficient. To complement that, we need to see more young Americans learning French, more American students coming to France, more American tourists – when coronavirus is behind us – visiting our beautiful regions.

It is my job to try to galvanize the French, Francophone and Francophile community in the Midwest to spare no effort so that Paris is America’s number one choice for honeymoons but also that France remains among the top choices in America for business location, study abroad, scientific partnerships and… of course wine and cheese imports. Without the support of the French-American community, there is nothing that I can achieve.

It is my understanding that you are fluent in several languages in addition to French, your mother tongue, and that you have served as a diplomat on several continents.  Please tell us how you first became interested in learning about other languages and cultures and about your experiences.

I grew up in the French countryside, 70 miles south east of Paris. It was a sort of French Midwest. My parents were not farmers but teachers. My father taught German. I was exposed to other languages: German and Creole since my family, on my mother’s side, is from the Island of La Réunion, the sister island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. I visited Berlin in 1987 and 1988. How lucky I was! These visits as well as the summer flies over Africa when leaving for vacations in La Réunion probably played a role in my later attempt to pursue a diplomatic career.

At the age of twenty, after reading books about Africa and graduating from Sciences Po, I went to the Paris Institute of Oriental Languages to take Swahili classes. Why Swahili? Because it sounded intriguing and it was not a European language. It is actually to the most spoken African language. I soon realized, to my pure enjoyment, that the only reasonable way to practice the language was to spend time in Zanzibar, the island that is the cradle of the Swahili language, where “pure” Swahili – as they brag – is spoken and written. Zanzibar is the “Académie Française” of the Swahili.  So I went, with my bag pack and the “Lonely Planet” guidebook for a couple of months and later got a job with the Alliance française of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In the end, I never graduated from the Oriental Languages Institute but I wear it as a badge of honor that I learned Swahili in the streets of Zanzibar. Twenty five later, I am the consul of France to the Midwest and the only line in my CV that is always, always mentioned when I am introduced is: “He speaks Swahili” and suddenly I see, in Faulkton, South Dakota, or Lancaster, Ohio, smiling and friendly faces. It is so nice. To me, the transformative experience I had in East Africa in my early twenties and the study abroad programs that I promote for Americans in France are the two side of the same coin: young adults need initiatory journeys to take, independently, the right path that is waiting for them.

I remember that you offered the hospitality of the Consulate to professors of French when the Modern Language Association (MLA) met in Chicago in 2019, and I attended the wonderful luncheon hosted by the Embassy of France at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) convention in Washington, DC. Please tell us your thoughts on French language learning in the US.

The US is the biggest power in the world. It tops everyone else in many fields. Still, there is one area where US performance is very poor, that is the status of foreign languages in schools. The teachers are not to blame. The structure and sometimes the mindset are the problem.

I do not want to patronize or lecture here. France too, in the past had poor performances, in comparative terms with Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries. But, despite our limited success, the intention had always been to have a system where most kids, in middle school, take not one but two foreign languages. With time, as American visitors can see it, our general level of English has improved and nowadays we invest more in the teaching of foreign languages, notably at an early age, in our public schools system.

Unfortunately, here in the Midwest, there is too often a tendency to consider foreign languages as a luxury: “It is nice. Beside, French is very romantic. But it does not give you a job”. That is so wrong. It would be a big mistake to erase the teaching of French in American schools. If you count country by country, French is the second-most spoken language on the planet. It is the only language, with English, that is spoken on all continents. It is an official language of the European Union, of all international organizations and of the African Union.

The African dimension of the French language is very important. Some countries, in Africa but also outside Africa, have noticed that and are developing the teaching of French. The US should not miss the train. The Francophiles have to realize that French is the language of Versailles but it is also the language of Kinshasa, now the largest French-speaking city in the world, or Abidjan, or Rabat.

In my view, American school districts should not look at foreign languages in general, and French in particular, with old and narrow mindset. They had better look at the return, in the 21st global environment they are to get from their dollars invested in French language. It is not an expensive investment. Fortunately enough, not everyone thinks like that. I have seen schools districts, in Indiana for example, reversing their decision to eliminate French. I have also visited public schools in the South or West Side of Chicago that do an incredible job in providing access to French to local population as well as immigrant communities. That can certainly be replicated elsewhere.

To me, the status of foreign languages in school districts is a reliable indicator of where the community stands: is it a forward-looking community or not? Is it a thriving community or not? Is it an integrated or disintegrating community or not? It is a reliable indicator here and in France too.

French classes should not be a monopoly for big cities and affluent suburbs. It should be accessible for everyone. Just like German and English were accessible to me when I was in middle school in the middle of nowhere in France! I hate it when I hear “we could consider French but the demand is declining”. If the offer is attractive enough, there is no reason to believe that there will be no demand. That is why we work with French teachers, the American Association of Teachers of French in particular, to improve the quality of the offer and to advocacy work. As the consul, I can speak my mind with elected officials or business leaders. I always get a good reception and conversations are always instructive.

Economic relations between France and America are growing, for our mutual benefit. Meanwhile, the teaching of French language is declining in some communities. This is the contradiction that our diplomacy is trying to correct, with the support of the education and the business communities where the very French, Francophone and Francophile community plays an indispensable role, in Grand Rapids Michigan, in Columbus Indiana, in Fargo North Dakota and elsewhere.

As a parent, I am always interested in bilingualism and the use of additional languages in the home and family. Please share with us your thoughts on increasing language learning and use in our homes and communities.

Knowing the language of the country where you live changes everything: you belong to the community, you are included, like a member of an extended family, you have the tools to express your point of views, your feelings. You can debate, not on your terms but on your hosts’ terms. In return, you get to explain better the culture you are from, to better share your perspective, to see better what we have in common. You know how to navigate out of your zone of comfort. This is a good school for diplomacy.

What is true when you live abroad is also true when you are at home. Of course, you don’t need to speak foreign languages in your daily life. But what an advantage you have when you know international languages: you can travel, you can understand visitors, you can read books, watch movies, you understand better other people’s perspective. The possibilities are infinite.

 Living in the New York City area, I have followed with great interest the Bilingual Revolution, the Bilingual Fair, and the exponential growth of dual-language programs, including many in French, in the city, and at a French-American academy literally just down the street from my home. Please describe your thoughts on the importance of accessibility to language learning, especially through our US public schools.

The Bilingual Revolution is a fantastic development. I just want to make sure that French dual-language programs are not dragging behind in the Midwest.

The dual-language or immersion programs provide for a formidable opportunity to connect all the dots. I have two young children and I see how fast they have learned English in going to a bilingual school. I wish I had that chance when I was a kid. In my childhood, the only bilingual kids would come from immigrant background and could understand a little Portuguese, Arabic, Berber or Vietnamese. Unfortunately these skills were not appreciated at their true value. Today, things are changing. I have visited schools in Illinois, Minnesota or Iowa where the influx of French-speaking immigrant families have been a catalyst for dual-language programs that later become attractive for English native speakers. It is a modern version of the American melting pot. It is great to see that French language can achieve that. To me, this is the best of what public education – a pillar in the French Republic – can offer.

I have also seen in Milwaukee or in Columbus well-established immersion schools with good performances, diverse population and playing a pivotal role in their communities. In St. Louis, in Louisville, programs are opening. In Kansas City and in the Twin Cities, there are big immersion schools that are leaders in their districts. I know that it is not Midwesternish to show off but who knows that the Académie Lafayette in Kansas City is the largest immersion school in the United States? Next year they will have classes from Kindergarten all the way to the International Baccalaureate.

More programs are going to open, soon in South Bend, Indiana, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Midwest. I just wish Chicago will follow through. We are working with school principals to develop French education at an early age. We keep pushing to advocate dual-languages program because they are the best investment France can make, in supporting local communities’ initiatives, for the future of French-US relations. Two years ago, the immersion school in Milwaukee celebrated its 40th anniversary. Alumni are sending their kids to the school. Do you realize what it means? Two generations, maybe three, of native English speakers can speak French like you and me at home without anyone left aside.

As you know, between 10M and 20M in the US are of French ancestry, and 3M speak French in the home.  What advice would have for French language communities, advocates, educators, and other French-language stakeholders who are working to support and to promote the role and presence of French language and Francophone culture in the US?

The French language does not belong to France. It is equally the property of Haiti or Canada, two of America’s neighbors. French belongs to all the people who speak French. To me, Francophonie has no border. It is an open-ended community.

As soon as you start to learn French, you become a full member of the family. The community has two types of members: the Francophones by heritage like me and the Francophones by choice like the thousands of students that I have visited across the Midwest. But there is no first class or second class member of the community. I consider that the United States is also a Francophone country given the millions of French speakers who live here. Up to now, only the State of Louisiana has an official status in the “Organisation internationale de la Francophonie”. But some Midwestern states – actually all of them – could one day claim their French heritage too.

In the meantime, let us strengthen our alliance, our coalition, involving the Francophone and Francophiles of America, with the noble aim of spreading our positive message of mutual understanding, successful trade and cross-investment, confidence in the benefits of international scientific cooperation. Diplomacy starts in the classroom.

Are there any additional insights you would like to share with us today?

Here are five recommendations, taken from my personal experience, for young and not so young Americans.

One, young Americans should not hesitate when they think of a study abroad project or a Peace Corps experience: go, just go!

Two, if you go to France or to a French-speaking country, do not be afraid if you think that your French is not good enough: you will learn on the spot, making friends, taking part-time jobs, socializing, making mistakes. These are the moments when you make the fastest progress. Suddenly you will start to dream in French and work your skills even when you sleep.

Three, the American visitors to France do not have to be fluent in French but they shall make an effort to learn a few phrases. This is the little “plus” that makes the difference to your interlocutors. They love it when you show that you make an effort. By the way, we love American accent.

Four, learning a foreign language open your doors to the world. It will help you become the “global citizen” that is not afraid of the outside world and on the contrary will be leading global as well as local efforts. You have nothing to lose when you learn foreign languages. What you learn do not come at the expense of what you have learned before. You do not give up your identity when you learn a foreign language. You learn about your own culture in learning foreign languages.

Five, it is never too late to learn a foreign language. I have visited nursing homes where residents take French lessons. It is very moving. As it is moving to see English-speaking kindergartners learn – so fast – the American curriculum in French in immersion schools. They are the future ambassadors of France-US relations.

 

Guillaume Lacroix became Consul General of France in Chicago on August 29th, 2017. He oversees the relations between France and 13 U.S. Midwestern States.

He holds diplomas from the Institute of Political Studies and the Law School of Assas (pron. ah-sass) University in Paris. He speaks Swahili, a language he studied at the Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris and in the field, on the islands of Zanzibar, East Africa.

He started his diplomatic career in 1997. He was assigned to the Bureau of African Affairs at the Headquarters in France, then to the French Embassy in Tanzania. In 2005, he joined the French Embassy in Washington DC.

He was also posted in two other diplomatic institutions: at the U.S. State Department as part of an exchange program and at the European External Action Service in Brussels.

From 2013 until 2017, he served in the cabinets of French Foreign Affairs Ministers as Counselor for African Affairs.

Guillaume Lacroix was born in 1971 in Auxerre (pron. oh-sair), in Burgundy. He is married and has two children.

https://chicago.consulfrance.org/Guillaume-Lacroix-Consul-General-in-Chicago

 

 

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