The consul general says he heard there was less ‘French bashing’ in Maine than in other parts of America.

LEWISTON – France’s diplomat to New England hopes to give a boost to the Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary’s.

Consul General Thierry Vankirk-Hoven met with area leaders Friday and visited the center as part of a tour of Maine.

When the new center opens, Vankirk-Hoven wants to steer performers to Lewiston as part of his country’s support of French culture in America. Located in Boston, his consulate helps draw major French performers to Boston and New York, he said.

He may be able to convince some of those people to perform in Lewiston while they’re in the Northeast, he said. The consulate may also be able to highlight the Lewiston area to French visitors to New England via its Web site,

“It’s very important for us to have this contact with this population,” Vankirk-Hoven said.

People in France know about the French heritage in Quebec, but they know less about Maine and New Hampshire, he said.

Vankirk-Hoven was invited to Lewiston by the heritage center’s leaders, who visited the French, Canadian and Quebecois consulates in Boston last week.

Rita Dube, the center’s executive director, said they hoped to gather support for the center. The consulates can bring the project visibility, needed as work continues to raise money for renovations to the former St. Mary’s church.

While in Boston, they also visited business groups with ties to France and Canada. Dube hopes they will help the center find new sources of grant money or other donations.

When complete, the former Catholic church will be a center for the arts, with a performance area upstairs and a museum and library downstairs. Work is under way on the building’s electrical and plumbing systems.

Vankirk-Hoven’s visit brings the project added visibility and prestige, Dube said.

About 30 people attended the reception, held at Dube’s Lewiston home. Most spoke French. The diplomat responded by addressing the group for several minutes in his own language.

He talked about the recent tension between the United States and France. French leaders strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The disagreement led to hostility on both sides of the Atlantic.

Vankirk-Hoven heard that Mainers refrained from “French bashing” more than people in other parts of America, he said.

“We still think it would have been better to have found a peaceful solution,” he said. But he’d rather focus on other matters.

“We have to look to the future,” Vankirk-Hoven said. “The past is past.”

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