Long-Scorned in Maine, French Has Renaissance
New York Times  
June 4, 2006

Correction appended

SOUTH FREEPORT, Me. ? Frederick Levesque was just a child in Old Town,
when teachers told him to become Fred Bishop, changing his name to its
translation to conceal that he was French-American.

Cleo Ouellette's school in Frenchville made her write "I will not speak
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

And Howard Paradis, a teacher in Madawaska forced to reprimand
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
reverberated for decades afterward. But now, le Français fait une
rentrée ?
French is making a comeback.

The State Legislature began holding an annual French-American Day four
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.
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
in high school, added, "I've been working on my French."

The Franco-American Heritage Center, opened in Lewiston a few years ago,
guests at its luncheons up to a dollar if they lapse into English ?
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
the South Portland Public Library, giving people a chance to relearn
mothballed French. Census figures show Maine has a greater proportion of
speaking French at home than any other state ? about 5.3 percent.

And in South Freeport, there is L'École Française du Maine, a
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
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'École Française, 45 minutes from
"I'm doing it because I want Alex to learn more about our heritage and

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,
regrets that she did not ensure her own children were well versed in

"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
Canada beginning in the 1870's and became the backbone of textile mills
shoe factories. But resistance developed, and people began stereotyping
newcomers 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
exposure to French to avoid discrimination or because of a now-outmoded
that erasing French would make learning English easier.