Supporting the French language and Franco-American culture were topics discussed by the new consul general of France during visits to Maine last week. Christophe Guilhou arrived at the consulate in Boston on Aug. 24.
Last week was Guilhou’s first official visit to Maine, although he previously attended informal gatherings here. His schedule included meetings with Maine’s Franco-Americans as well as French language educators, municipal officials and some representatives from the state’s economic and business development programs.
Gov. John Baldacci welcomed Guilhou to Maine. A lunch was hosted with a delegation of state leaders at the Blaine House.
Maine’s honorary French consular, Severin Beliveau of Hallowell, escorted Guilhou during his busy schedule.
Baldacci said Guilhou’s visit supports Franco-American cultural creativity and the shared heritage of 35-40 percent of the state’s population. He said protecting Franco-American culture and the French language is important for the large number of Maine people who claim at least some French-Canadian ancestry.
“We should all take pride in our family’s ancestry,” said Baldacci.
Guilhou spoke with leaders who want to improve the communications between various groups of Franco-Americans who live in southern Maine’s cities and in northern Maine’s French-Acadian towns. Cultural events like state festivals, language programs and educational seminars are generally organized independently of one another. Lewiston’s Mayor Laurent Gilbert suggested a central cultural resource center.
“We might be able to create a cultural clearinghouse where Franco-Americans and others can find out what’s going on in the culture, regardless of where they live,” said Gilbert.
A morning reception May 11 at Thornton Academy in Saco introduced Guilhou to the school’s faculty members and state and local municipal leaders. Headmaster Carl Stasio Jr. spoke about the secondary school’s international boarding students. Thornton Academy is interested in reaching out to students in Western Europe, especially from France, said Stasio.
Guilhou, 48, was born in Lille, France. His diplomatic experiences include several posts representing France with the United Nations. He speaks French, English and Arabic. Before being consul general, he was a permanent representative of France to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland.
Boston’s consulate office provides diplomatic services for French citizens living in the New England states, excluding Connecticut.
Additionally, Guilhou is hearing from Franco-Americans about how to protect their cultural heritage, especially learning and speaking French. He hopes to visit groups in Maine several times each year.
In Saco, Guilhou learned how people in Biddeford and Saco routinely spoke French in their workplaces, schools and businesses. English has replaced the Quebecois French commonly spoken.
Meanwhile, many families practice French traditions learned from their French-Canadian memeres and peperes.
University of Maine in Augusta French students told Guilhou about their Franco-American family members who won’t speak French at home anymore. They were told they don’t speak real French, said professor Chelsea Ray, who leads the UMA language studies. “They think people won’t understand them,” she said.
Guilhou responded by saying people who speak French with an accent should not worry about being understood. “Everybody has an accent,” he said. In fact, where he grew up in Lille, the people are known by their particular accent. He hopes Franco-Americans will speak French at home and in their neighborhoods again.
Beliveau told students how appreciative French people are when they meet Americans who speak their language. “Our French-Canadian accent is not a problem for the French,” Beliveau said.
Information about the consul general is available at www.consulfrance-boston.org.
Juliana L’Heureux can be contacted at: [email protected]