“While [much of] the rest of the U.S. has its Anglo-Saxon heritage, New Orleans’ mother country is France – and that makes a big difference,” explained Alexandra Stafford, president of the Council of French Societies, an umbrella organization that promotes the many French nonprofit organizations in Louisiana’s most populous city.
“Our French connection brings a different flavor to our community,” she continued. “A different vocabulary, different traditions, different food and most importantly, a joie de vivre that other parts of America don’t have!”
That joie de vivre was on full display on March 25. The aroma of moules frites, crepes and raclette cheese with cornichons, as well as the longing lyrics of a French ballad all emanated from a side street. Children laughed and played while some ate colorful macarons, and a trio of women dressed as Marie Antoinette took a photo in front of an oversized sign that read, “Bonjour!”
One could be excused for thinking for a moment they were entering a Parisian street festival. In reality, this was taking place at Fête Française, the annual outdoor street fair hosted by Ecole Bilingue, one of a half-dozen French immersion schools in New Orleans.
Events like this make sense in a city originally called La Nouvelle-Orléans by its 18th century French founders. And though, according to a survey at the start of the current century, only about 1% of residents still speak French, this neighborhood festival serves as evidence that New Orleans continues to be influenced in countless ways by its Francophone past.
“Many residents can still recall a time when French was spoken widely in homes here,” Ecole Bilingue’s head of school, or chef d’établissement, Pierre-Loïc Denichou, told VOA. “Louisiana is a state whose identity relies on its historic ties to the French colonial period, and so our school and our festival are about embracing what makes living here unique from anywhere in the world.
“We are preserving a culture born from the influence of so many cultures,” he added, “an important one being that of the French.”
From croissants to street grids
On the other side of town, Dominique Rizzo and his small team prepare pastries in the morning at his shop, Celtica French Bakery. Rizzo said he moved to New Orleans from France decades ago to share his love for the food of his native country with his adopted hometown.
“I make my pastries with the kind of care and quality you’d find in France,” he explained. “The light and fluffy pastries, the flaky and buttery croissants, and the sweet and indulgent desserts — the French turned baking into an art, and I think people come to my Celtica to find a little corner of Paris in New Orleans.”
Food is one of the most celebrated examples of sustained French influence in New Orleans, but it’s far from the only example.
Joseph Mistrot is the former president of L’Union Française, a local nonprofit founded in 1872 to teach the French language and preserve Francophone culture. His great-grandfather emigrated to New Orleans from France in the late 19th century and his Cajun grandmother’s first language was French. Mistrot said Mardi Gras is another high-profile example of how historic Francophone influences endure in New Orleans today.
“Mardi Gras is our premier event of the year and is a direct reflection of our ties to France,” he said. “The season starts with a parade by the Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc, in honor of the French heroine and [an unofficial] patron saint of New Orleans. It ends with the Boeuf Gras, which is an old French tradition in which a cow was paraded through the street before being slaughtered for the final feast before Lent.”
“Today, in New Orleans, it’s not a real cow,” Mistrot was quick to add. “It’s made of paper-mache and part of a parade float, but it’s from the same tradition.”
French influence can even be seen in how the city was built.
Whereas most American cities have a street grid composed of perfect squares and right angles — Manhattan being a classic example — New Orleans, which was founded along the twisting, winding Mississippi River, benefits from a French-style street grid with an irregular geometry.
“French influence in New Orleans is traceable to the spring of 1682, when the French-Canadian explorer Robert La Salle first passed the future site of the city and claimed the entire Mississippi Valley for France,” explained Richard Campanella, an author and geographer with New Orleans’ Tulane University. “By the end of the 17th century, an outpost was established within that claim.”
As French surveyors laid out plantation parcels in the next decades, Campanella said, they had to be fair and give each landowner a piece of the fertile land beside the Mississippi River, as well as shipping access.
The solution was thin, “long-lot” plantations, known as the “arpent system.” As these lots were eventually divided up into neighborhoods in the 19th century, the street grid adhered to the earlier plantation boundaries. Some of today’s street names were derived from those plantations as well as the names of famous French historical figures and families.
“Look at any map or satellite image of New Orleans, and you will still readily see the imprint of this old, French surveying system from centuries ago.”
Francophone with local flair
In the centuries since New Orleans’ original settlement by the French, several elements of Francophone influence have waned. Fires in the city’s famous French Quarter destroyed much of its French architecture, which was replaced with a Spanish style after Spain took control of the city in the late 18th century.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 resulted in La Nouvelle-Orléans becoming part of the United States. As the Anglo “Américains” flooded into the new territory, the existing — and previously dominant — French Creole population slowly lost political control. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, French-owned businesses closed, and the French language largely disappeared from homes in the city, though it can still be found in more rural parts of Louisiana.
“After the Civil War, and the destruction of Louisiana’s economy in the years after, ties between New Orleans and France weakened considerably,” explained Thomas Klingler, director of linguistics in the French and Italian department at Tulane University.
But lovers of Francophone culture are adamant that many aspects of French influence have survived over the years and are readily apparent to the eyes – and the tastebuds.
French restaurants abound in New Orleans, but this is a different type of French from what you’ll find in Paris.
“New Orleans cuisine is unparalleled in the world, and like the residents who live here, our food is a mix of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean and more recently Vietnamese influences,” Ryan Pearson, executive chef at New Orleans restaurant Couvant, told VOA.
As Pearson prepares Couvant’s most popular entree, he highlights the push and pull between the city’s unique identity and how French culture plays a major role in shaping it.
“We wrap veal in brioche and layer in a chicken mousse, which is served with a sauce diable — and this is all very French,” he explained, carefully painting the plate with the sauce. “But at the same time, we are adding locally sourced ingredients like cauliflower and mushrooms because that’s something we’re committed to alongside the French technique of our cooking.”
Commitment to the future
It’s a metaphor for life in New Orleans. An American city with a historic but enduring French connection shaped by cultures from across the globe.
The importance of the relationship between Louisiana and France was on full display in the final weeks of 2022. On a three-day visit to the United States, French President Emmanuel Macron made a memorable stopover in the city.
“Everywhere you looked in the French Quarter, people were in the streets by the hundreds to greet him,” remembered Nathalie Beras, the Consul General of France in Louisiana.
She spoke of a speech the president gave, announcing a new program to support bilingualism and access to French language — not just in New Orleans, but across the United States.
“That he made that announcement here — it was a clear sign that the link between France and New Orleans is very strong,” she told VOA, “not only historically, but in the present and for the future.”
And that he was so well-received in this Francophone city?
“It’s a sign we share so much,” she added. “Perhaps most importantly, an appreciation for life.”