Maine: Stigmatized for Decades, French Has Renaissance

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jun 3 16:13:12 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, June 4, 2006

Stigmatized for Decades, French Has Renaissance


SOUTH FREEPORT, Me.  Frederick Levesque was just a child in Old Town, Me.,
when teachers told him to become Fred Bishop, changing his name to its
English translation to conceal that he was French-American. Cleo
Ouellette's school in Frenchville made her write "I will not speak French"
over and over if she uttered so much as a "oui" or "non"  and rewarded
students with extra recess if they ratted out French-speaking classmates.
And Howard Paradis, a teacher in Madawaska forced to reprimand
French-speaking students, made the painful decision not to teach French to
his own children. "I wasn't going to put my kids through that," Mr.
Paradis said. "If you wanted to get ahead you had to speak English."

That was Maine in the 1950's and 1960's, and the stigma of being
French-American reverberated for decades afterward. But now, "le Francais
fait une rentree" French is making a comeback. The State Legislature began
holding an annual French-American Day four years ago, with legislative
business and the Pledge of Allegiance done in French and "The
Star-Spangled Banner" sung with French and English verses. Maine elected
its first openly French-American congressman, Michael H.  Michaud, in
2002. And Gov. John E. Baldacci has steadily increased commerce with
French-speaking countries and led a trade delegation to France last fall,
one of the first since tension with France began after the Sept. 11
attacks. In an interview, the governor, who is of Lebanese-Italian descent
and studied Russian in high school, added, "I've been working on my

The Franco-American Heritage Center, opened in Lewiston a few years ago,
fines guests at its luncheons up to a dollar if they lapse into English
jovial retaliation for the schools that once gave students movie tickets
or no homework if they squealed on French speakers. "Reacquisition
classes" and conversation groups have sprung up at places like the South
Portland Public Library, giving people a chance to relearn their
mothballed French. Census figures show Maine has a greater proportion of
people speaking French at home than any other state about 5.3 percent.

And in South Freeport, there is L'Ecole Francaise du Maine, a
French-immersion program that began as a preschool in 2001 and proved so
popular it has added a grade each year. Many students have French-American
parents who were estranged from the language, and some commute long
distances to the school. "My dad grew up speaking only French and went to
school and got teased by other kids, and he wanted to spare his kids that
experience, so both my wife and I are kind of a generation that got
skipped," said Bob Michaud, whose son, Alexandre, attends second grade at
L'Ecole Francaise, 45 minutes from home. "I'm doing it because I want Alex
to learn more about our heritage and background."

The school has made Anna Bilodeau, 8, and her brother Markus, 7, so fluent
that they routinely speak French with their grandmother Arlene Bilodeau,
68, who regrets that she did not ensure her own children were well-versed
in French. "It made me feel sad--this was our language," Ms. Bilodeau
said. "When I hear Anna and Markus speaking, I just admire what they're
doing." People of French descent poured into Maine and other New England
states from Canada beginning in the 1870's and became the backbone of
textile mills and shoe factories. But a backlash developed, stereotyping
them as rednecks, dolts or inadequate patriots. In 1919, Maine passed a
law requiring schools to teach in English.

French-Americans had a saying: "Qui perd sa langue, perd sa foi." Who
loses his language, loses his faith. But many assimilated or limited their
children's exposure to French to avoid discrimination or because of a
now-outmoded belief that erasing French would make learning English
easier. "There was just a stigma that maybe you weren't as bright as
anybody else, that you didn't speak English as well," said Linda Wagner,
53, of Lewiston, who takes reacquisition classes to reclaim language lost
as a child. Suzanne Bourassa Woodward, 46, of South Portland, who recently
joined a conversation group and enrolled her 10-year-old daughter in
French classes, said "my French went underground" in fourth grade because
"I was ridiculed, the dumb Frenchman jokes came out. After that, my
parents would always speak to me in French, but I always responded in

As recently as the early 1990's, a character named Frenchie, who
caricatured French-Americans, was a fixture on a Maine radio show until
protests drove him off the air. The stigma was compounded by the
French-American dialect, which can differ from French spoken in France in
idiom, pronunciation, vocabulary like British and American English.
French-American French, derived from people who left France for Canada
centuries ago, resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern
Parisian variety, said Yvon Labbe, director of the University of Southern
Maine's French-American Center.

French-Americans may say "chassis" instead of "fenetre" for window, "char"
instead of "voiture" for car. Mr. Labbe said many French-Americans
pronounce "moi" as Moliere did: "moe." A saying illustrated
French-Americans' inferiority complex about their language: "On est ne
pour etre petit pain; on ne peut pas s'attendre a la boulangerie." We are
born to be little breads; we cannot expect the bakery. "We were always
told that we spoke bad French, that we were worthless as people because we
spoke neither French nor English," said Ms. Ouelette, 69.

Indeed, when Jim Bishop, son of Fred Bishop (ne Frederick Levesque), took
high school and college classes to recapture French "it was just a
nightmare," he said. "At times I would say words and they would turn out
not to be real words." Maine's French renaissance is partly due to the
collapse of the mills and factories, which put French-Americans into the
mainstream. It was aided by a group of legislators who in 2002 began
holding weekly meetings in French. The revival includes both
French-American patois and culture, celebrated at places like the Lewiston
center, and Parisian language and curriculum, taught at L'Ecole Francaise.
The government of France is also involved, seeing "very big potential" to
"develop trade relations, tourism," said Alexis Berthier, a spokesman for
the French consulate in Boston, which is promoting programs and events in
Maine and working to establish sister cities.

Most Maine schools, like those elsewhere, teach considerably more Spanish
than French. But for those like Norman Marquis of Old Orchard Beach, who
takes reacquisition classes, the resurgence of his lost language is
profound. "It's almost like I found religion," said Mr. Marquis, 68,
suddenly choking with emotion. "My religion, No. 1, was French. I have a
personal movement in my heart for it." Ariel Sabar contributed reporting
from Augusta, Me., for this article.

[moderator's note:  Regarding the issue of the national anthem etc. in

"The State Legislature began holding an annual French-American Day four
years ago, with legislative business and the Pledge of Allegiance done in
French and "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung with French and English
verses." (hs)]

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