Living in New Orleans – and throughout south and central Louisiana – we’re surrounded by reminders of our French legacy. Vieux Carré. Streets named Fontainebleau, Bienville and Iberville (the last two are also names of parishes in the state). Cajun and Creole music and food. The fleur-de-lis, well, everywhere. (Interesting fact: According to the 2000 census, there are 300,000 French speakers in Louisiana.)
Though the Spanish can lay claim as the first Europeans to make their way through the region – and ruled over the city for almost as long as the French – it was the French who named the state – after King Louis XIV in 1682 – and our fair city – in 1718, after Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans, nephew to King Louis. And while the city and state have strong heritages from a number of ethnic groups, it’s the French – even after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when we became part of the U.S. – that cast then and now a benevolent shadow over us, forging a special relationship.
This became even more apparent right after Hurricane Katrina, when the French government was among the first foreign governments to offer help. It continues to do so with Katrina-related and other initiatives.
Here in New Orleans to shepherd these projects along is France’s Consul Général Olivier Brochenin. A career diplomat, he requested to be stationed in the U.S., and in Louisiana in particular. His office is ground central for the French government in Louisiana – ensuring that our common bond remains strong.
I must note that as nations we also have another kinship – the month of July marks both of our countries’ celebrations of democracy: July 4, Independence Day; July 14, Bastille Day.
Vive la France, les États-Unis, et la Louisiane!
Resides: Garden District
Profession: Consul Général (of the Consulat Général de France à la Nouvelle-Orléans.)
Education: Political science and law
Family: Wife, Rina, and three children (7-year-old twins and a 3-year-old)
Favorite book: Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal
Favorite movie: Vivre by Akira Kurosawa
Favorite TV show: I don’t really watch TV, but I have recently discovered “Seinfeld.” In France, there is a show that has been on for 30, 40 years, Des Chiffres, Des Lettres
Favorite food: Indian curry
Favorite restaurant (in New Orleans and wherever else in the world): Bayona
Favorite music/musicians: I don’t listen to a lot of music. In New Orleans, I enjoy going to see and listening to jazz.
Favorite vacation spot: Where my family is.
When did you start in New Orleans? September 2007
How long will you be stationed here? Three to four years. You don’t really know in advance where you will be assigned next.
Where have you been stationed before? Paris, Brussels (for the European Union), Israel (Tel Aviv) and Germany (Bonn).
How did you end up in New Orleans? I asked to come to the U.S., and when I saw Louisiana was on the list of places to be posted, I got what I wanted.
How do you like New Orleans? I am really enjoying New Orleans. I never knew how many friends I had until I moved here, because we have many visitors!
What has surprised you about the city? I would say the international openness, the will of the city that is bigger than reality. The way that New Orleans is much more than its physical self. It is a city of the world – and one of the major cities of America. There is so much beauty everywhere in New Orleans – not only the buildings but also the people, the culture, the Mardi Gras Indians, the jazz.
Have you been out to Southwest Louisiana – Cajun country – yet? Yes. Many times.
Is it hard to understand Cajun French? Is it that much different? It’s like the difference between American and English. The accent is, of course, different.
I see that you were born in Ethiopia. Was your father a diplomat? Yes.
Where did you live growing up? Ethiopia, Vietnam, Norway, Burma, Canada, France and the U.S. – New York City, where I lived 1976 to ’80.
How long has there been a French Consulate in New Orleans? We have always had a consulate in Louisiana, since the Louisiana Purchase. There are 10 French consulates in the U.S.
Our relationship here is based on a special connection between France and Louisiana.
What is one of the programs that the French support in Louisiana? CODOFIL [Council for the Development of French Language in Louisiana] was founded 41 years ago as a state agency. It was developed directly for French immersion programs. It gives the opportunity of educating children in an international environment based on a French-speaking culture, which is very important to have in the global world we live in – there are 55 or so French-speaking countries in the world. We are very proud of being partners in this.
France was very supportive of the region after Hurricane Katrina. There was a very strong, natural movement of sympathy towards Louisiana, and it was because of our connection, and Louisiana’s capacity to speak to the world.
It was only three or four days after Katrina for the French to send French emergency units in the field to join their Louisiana counterparts to look for survivors.
There was immediate collective support and fundraising in France. Private initiatives – the government didn’t have to ask – municipalities in France, individuals – money collected by all the towns and villages in France, in a few weeks, amounted to $100,000, and was immediately sent here.
Corporations came here together for a special visit to tour and see what they could do, and gathered either in cash or goods, something like $20 million of help.
There is a foundation, Lagardere, dedicated to promoting education and culture, which raised $150,000.
There was also political manifestation of sympathy. Very quickly French officials came in support – the French Minister of Culture came in November 2005, French Minister of Transport came with many French companies in February ’06, the French Ambassador visited five times.
A calculation is that we supervised $900,000 of money for post-Katrina efforts.
In what ways was the money dispersed? We decided to use this sum in various ways: some right away went to emergency help to communities in need – ones that drew less attention but would make a difference. For example, the Houma Nation – which has a strong connection to France, because they speak French. There was also Tulane University – we realized it had a Public Health school, one of the most famous in the U.S. for tropical diseases. It happens that Tulane [University] has a strong cooperation with French-speaking countries, within the Caribbean and Africa. So we also dedicated money for the School of Public Health.
We tried to spot a few places where we could make a difference, as well as try also to help in the long term. We realized that many musicians had been very badly hit. For instance, we brought 13 musicians to France to play festivals and provided residencies. We shifted funds from other places help to these artists. This program lasted for two years. We funded Artists of the Gulf Coast, for visual arts. We invited 10 regional artists in 2006 to France for residency, and their work was exhibited in September ’07.
The French Minister of Culture visited New Orleans twice after the storm and in a very short time got French museums to cooperate in loaning art New Orleans for a major exhibition, “Femme, Femme, Femme,” [at the New Orleans Museum of Art. There was a partnership with the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
Future plans? There was such a surge of sympathy and willingness to reach out to Louisiana and New Orleans [after Katrina], that it created new contacts and new ideas. We find a sector where we can be helpful – and try not to spend all the money in one shot. We want to be helpful in the long run.
Based on that, there are so many other opportunities, and the cooperation between France and Louisiana has gone to a new level of solidarity. One example, there was been a agreement signed last year, the France-Louisiana Cooperation Accords, which strengthened our partnership in education of children through to universities. Louisiana Public Broadcasting is a strong partner for Louisiana’s international outreach, and will be funding and promoting French Louisiana programs.
Any plans for Bastille Day? We will have a party to celebrate the occasion.
True Confession: I smoke a pipe.