Does the French Language Make Us Think Of The World Differently?

Last Summer, when the Hermione, Lafayette's reconstructed frigate, crossed the Atlantic from Rochefort, France, to travel up the US East Coast from Virginia to Maine, we were reminded of the great ideas from the Enlightenment that united France and America in the 18th century, which France later carved on all its frontispieces: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. As French Historian and Visiting Professor at Yale Patrick Weil noted in his book Etre Français, this "positive memory of the Revolution" is the cornerstone of French cultural identity. Similarly, in times of trouble, America goes back to the legacy of its Founding Fathers to explore- with numerous biographies- the philosophy of these revolutionary times.

Of course, seen from this side of the Atlantic, French cultural identity is synonymous with the French language (and for those who still doubt it, yes, it is helpful to know how to speak French), and a few other usual suspects including good food, good wine, and great writers such as Albert Camus, who came to New York 70 years ago and is celebrated for the entire month of April in the city.

Still these wonderful things are not enough. Not anymore, at least. In a rapidly changing word, the notion of national identity is easily questioned. Borders are porous; wars are forcing people to flee and emigrate. More than ever the idea of identity, and more precisely that of cultural identity, is at stake.

France has a high opinion of its cultural identity to the point that in 1993 during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks on trade, it imposed the idea that cultural goods and services should be exceptions to general treaties on free trade. In other words, a country should be free to protect its culture with discriminating measures, a concept seen by the US as a form of protectionism.

In 2005, "Cultural exception" was replaced by "cultural diversity". Consequently this change raised significant questions. How can France welcome this newly acquired cultural diversity and still keeps its « cultural exception »? In France, the debate has been raging over the last years. What is it to be French in 2016?

As a bilingual school where students are French, American, both or more, the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY), believed it was worth asking the question bluntly. Thus, on Saturday, April 16, at an all-day free conference on Le Français Oui, But Why ?, invited panelists will endeavor to give nuanced answers to a complex question. Different voices such as Patrick Weil, already mentioned, Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist and activist on anti-racism, Francophile writer Adam Gopnik, or French author Alain Borer, to name just a few, will tackle this issue: Does speaking French make us look at the world differently ?

In choosing a bilingual education for their children, most parents wish for them to learn another language. Yet, beyond such a gift, they open them up to another culture. In the case of the French language, it is also a virtual passport to the Francophile world. According to the International Organization of the Francophonie, 272 million people over 5 continents speak French worldwide. With the expansion of bilingual French classrooms in New York, spurred by the French Cultural Services , many parents are concerned by the debate.

As a French-born individual living in New York, I have my own opinion. The French language is an ever-surprising link between different worlds, through a jazz musician coming from Senegal, a Haitian-born taxi driver, or a colleague from Quebec. Of course, there is also French cuisine, noticeably acknowledged by Adam Gopnik in his book The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, and in other books that we can now find in New York at Albertine book store. All of which make French matter.

But being a Frenchie sometimes comes with heavy burdens. Like all, I was devastated by the recent attacks in Paris. They urge me to ask myself the same questions as most French citizens: Where is all this anger coming from? Did we fail to integrate? Is our sacrosanct separation of church and state, our beloved "laicité", an illusion in a world under ideological stress? Evidently, these are fundamental questions I still do not have answers to. Thus, I am looking forward to hearing intellectuals and passionate activists share their meaningful point of view. In the end, as a diehard fan of Lafayette (and proud of it!), I hope the idealistic and generous ideas of the 18th century can remain a source of inspiration.