Gov. Janet Mills and Arnaud Mentre, the consul general of France in Boston, visited Portland on Thursday evening to help launch a French culture program that supporters hope will strengthen the bonds that have existed in Maine for nearly two centuries.

Alliance Francaise du Maine will offer French language, cooking and art classes, as well as street singing performances, and French movie nights beginning next month from its new home at 24 Preble St. in Portland. The organization also might host an African night, featuring African food and dancing. The alliance will share the building space with the Immigrant Welcome Center.

The Consulate General of France said that Portland’s new center will become the first French culture consul in Maine, joining more than 100 centers nationwide, and 800 centers around the world. The Alliance’s mission is to encourage and develop knowledge of French language and culture, as well as to foster cultural, intellectual and artistic exchanges with local communities.

“French is alive and well in Maine,” Regine Whittlesey, president of Alliance Francaise told the crowd of more than 50 people who came to the launch party at the historic U.S. Custom House on Portland’s Fore Street. Built in the 1860s, the Custom House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whittlesey said that her nonprofit welcomes anyone who wants to learn to speak French or more about the country’s culture to become a member. French conversation courses will be offered in a range of levels from beginner to intermediate. Individual memberships will cost $40 and family memberships $50.

“French is very alive in Maine, whether it’s being spoken by families with a French heritage or by the immigrants who are coming to Maine,” she said. French is commonly spoken in many African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

According to Alliance Francaise, French has been spoken in Maine since the 19th century, when waves of French Canadians immigrated to work in mill towns such as Lewiston, Biddeford and Waterville. A 2012 legislative task force report found that about 24 percent of Maine’s population self-identifies as being Franco-American, making it the state’s largest ethnic group.

Mills, who said she speaks some French, pointed out that Maine borders Quebec, where French is the primary language.

“Our values have been entwined with Quebec for centuries,” Mill said. She said that French is the second most commonly spoken language in Maine.

Mills said Maine and the United States have been longstanding allies with France or years, though there was a time in Maine history when speaking French “outside the home in Maine was considered to be shameful,” she said However, Mills said over the years the state has worked hard to restore that pride in its French heritage and culture.

“Let all Mainers today and forever celebrate French language, culture, and history. Vive la Maine,” Mills told the crowd.

Alliance Francaise du Maine charges fees for classes. For more information, you can visit their website at AFduME.org.

 

 

 


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