In Case You Missed It: Atlanta Francophonie Festival

written and photographed by BROOKS METZLER

Alliance Française d’Atlanta at Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta

A teen girl with dark eyeliner puts a CD in the player of a vintage BMW. “What are you listening to?” an older gentleman asks in French. “The Cure,” she responds; he nods his approval. This scene from “Tous Les Chats Sont Gris” (“All Cats are Grey” in French), a Belgian film, which won Best International Film at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, brilliantly illustrates what a diverse, modern French-speaking population should be.

I watched the film during the 18th Atlanta Francophonie Festival, a celebration of French culture featuring art, performances and educational events held for a couple weeks every March. Since 2000, Francophonie Atlanta has hosted events for an estimated 15,000 Francophones (people whose native language is French) living in the metro area. 

The 501(c) 3 non-profit corporation, is a multi-cultural collaboration between the French-speaking countries with consulates in Atlanta and francophone organizations. Its mission is to promote the French language by raising awareness of the richness and diversity of francophone cultures from around the world.

Thanks to members of Francophonie Atlanta, which includes organizations like Alliance Francaise, École du Samedi, American Association of Teachers of French (Atlanta Chapter) and Atlanta Accuei as well as consulates from five different countries, there is an increased exposure of French-speaking Americans who are gaining a footing in Atlanta and in the Southeast. 

There is also a surge in those who want to learn French or improve their understanding of the language, as demonstrated by Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta, a French-American cultural center serving the Atlanta community as the premiere provider of French language and culture since 1912. They recently moved their Roswell school to a new, larger location on Willeo Road in response to tremendous demand from the community since opening the Northside branch three years ago. 

Ex-Pats, Friends and Fans

Michele Oliveres arrived in the U.S. in 1979, first living in New York, then moving to Atlanta in 1992. “This is when Atlanta was still a small town,” she said with a heavy French accent. Oliveres works as a consular advisor for the French Consulate General in Atlanta, which is housed in Buckhead Tower at Lenox Square and acts as the country’s diplomatic hub for Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Oliveres said that while the French ex-pats only makes up a small portion of the total population in the South, Francophonie Atlanta, Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta and Atlanta Accueil are very interested in continuing to promote the visibility of French culture. Additionally, groups like the American Association of Teachers of French and Ecole du Samedi, Atlanta International School’s French language school for children and adults, also try to further the cause.

What is a consul? You’ve heard of, and probably even seen the lavish headquarters of some consulates, but what exactly does a consul do? In official terms, a consul (or honorary consul) is a representative of a country that is outside of the country they’re currently residing in. The consul’s role is two fold: to assist and protect the citizens of their home country and; to facilitate trade and friendship between the people of the two countries. Specific duties of consuls will vary, but most often include issuing passports and visas, notarizing documents, and promoting trade. 

The Belgian French

Acute readers might now be asking why the Belgian film is in French. The vast influence that French culture, language and imperialism has imparted over the past several hundred years is the answer. Colony Square, located on Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta, houses much more than just the Alliance Francaise. It’s also home to consulates Canada, and has been actively revitalizing its role as an original icon at the very center of the ever-rising capital of the modern South.

Along with the Canadian Consulate General, the consulates of France, Belgium, Switzerland and Haiti have joined Francophonie Atlanta because a large percentage of each country’s citizens speak French.

Belgium has literature to thank for its 39 percent Francophone population. In the 13th century, French became the language of the entire region, which had already been heavily influenced by French culture in centuries previous. In 1970, Belgium’s government created three distinct “cultural communities,” which correspond with the country’s three official languages: Dutch, German and French. These communities run intermediary levels of government, with Franco-Belgians primarily living in the southern half of the country and in the Brussels-Capital region.

Belgian-French differs very little from the language spoken in France, but there are some distinct differences in word use.

A Trip to Switzerland

On the following Wednesday, a return trip to the Atlanta Francophonie Festival was essential, because it included a jazz performance, held on the beautiful Gothic-style campus of Agnes Scott University in Decatur. Seats at Rebecca Scott Hall filled quickly and, 15 minutes past 7 p.m., Pascal Auberson and Alex Bugnon took the stage.  

Pascal Auberson and Alex Bugnon performance at Agnes Scott College during Atlanta Francophonie Festival

Both musicians hail from the Romandy region of Switzerland, a largely French-speaking area surrounding Lake Geneva that shares a border with France.

Bugnon, a jazz pianist and composer, now lives in New York City, New York, but grew up in Montreux. “It’s a place where there’s an ever-changing love-hate relationship between the Germans, French and Italians,” he said. But growing up in Montreux was a dream come true for Bugnon, whose father was a jazz musician. After all, the picturesque resort town on Lake Geneva is home to the Montreux Jazz Festival, the second largest annual jazz festival in the world. Bugnon remembers watching acts like Aretha Franklin perform there when he was a kid.

Auberson, who lives in Lausanne, about 20 miles from Montreux, spent a decade in Paris studying music, and no one in his family was a stranger to the stage. “We communicated at home through music,” he said; his father, a famous composer and his sister, a classically-trained singer. But Auberson has long considered himself a virtuoso. “I can’t understand being a musician without having an interest in literature, painting, dance, other forms of art,” he said, citing personal inspirations like Miles Davis and Judy Garland.

Switzerland carries four official languages including French, with about 23-percent of the Swiss population speaking it. Like Belgian French, Swiss French differs little from the language as spoken in France, and those differences are largely lexical. For example, Swiss French for “father” is “vatr,” taken from the German term “vater” (standard French for “father” is père).

French Industry in the South

Today, French industry is well represented in the Southeast by a variety of high-end retailers, most of which belong to LVMH, a French multinational luxury conglomerate based in Paris.

Strolling around Buckhead, you’ll find eight of the 70 “houses” that make up LVMH, including French brands like Dior, Sephora, Louis Vuitton and Céline. Separate from LVMH are other iconic French names like Hérmes, which retails out of a towering storefront at The Shops at Buckhead Atlanta. There’s also Cartier, maker of French timepieces, with a location inside Lenox Square.

Window display at Christian Louboutin at The Shops at Buckhead Atlanta

Stepping outside of the fashion world, you’ll also find manufacturing operations for massive French companies like Michelin, which operates several factories in South Carolina and Alabama. French airplane manufacturer Airbus operates a final assembly line for the A320 Jetliner in Mobile, Alabama.

According to the French American Chamber of Commerce, France was one of the top five foreign investors in the United States in 2011. But the aim of Alliance Francaise and the Francophonie Festival is so much more than good commerce. These events are a chance to celebrate French culture in all of its forms, not only through language, but through music, visual art, dramatic plays and film.

For the universal language of art, no translation is needed.