La. to Mark 300 Years of French Heritage

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Throughout 1999, Louisiana will honor the tricentennial of its French heritage.

The Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT) is the primary agency charged with the celebration. Many towns are being asked to adopt a French heritage theme for their existing festivals.

A Civil War reenactmentBaton Rouge, the state's capital, plans an extensive "Bonne Fete" in recognition of its own 300th anniversary March 5 through 7. The three-day spectacular is to feature the arrival of the Bluenose (a Nova Scotia sailing ship), a laser-light show, a Taste of Baton Rouge food court, historical reenactments, art exhibits, dedications and entertainment.

It was in 1699 that French explorers encountered an Indian village with a large, red-stained pole in its center. The site was dubbed le Baton Rouge, or "red stick."

Another primary component of FrancoFete is the Congres Mondial, scheduled for Aug. 1 to 15. It will be a second clan reunion of Acadian descendants; the first took place in 1994 in Nova Scotia. The 1999 Congres Mondial will not be limited to one town, city or parish. Activities will take place across the Acadian-populated regions of the state.

The first week's festivities will take place in the Houma-Thibodaux region, east of the Atchafalaya Basin. The second week, the proceedings will move west to the Lafayette-Lake Charles area.

Throughout the year, visitors will be encouraged to visit many landmarks of French heritage, such as the Cabildo in New Orleans' Jackson Square, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, and the town of Natchitoches, where the Louisiana Office of State Parks operates a replica of the first French outpost in Louisiana.

The tricentennial also will encompass other events that are being put in place by the CRT. These include an exhibition of works by the French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose ties to Louisiana include paintings he executed within the state during visits to his family. The New Orleans Museum of Art houses a number of his paintings, and within a few blocks of the museum, his former home is open for tours. The museum will have Degas on display May to August of next year.

FrancoFete also represents Louisiana's celebration of the millennium and will begin and end with galas. And, come 2000, Louisiana's officials hope to have strengthened the state's appreciation for its French heritage as well as added enthusiasm for the preservation of the French language.

FrancoFete 99, Phone: (800) 870-4959. Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Phone: (504) 342-8100. Baton Rouge CVB, Phone: (800) LAROUGE, Web: www.bracvb.com

Language Appreciation

One of the primary goals of FrancoFete is to increase the appreciation of the French language in Louisiana, both as a cultural symbol and as a valuable skill, according to state tourism officials here.

By turning the spotlight on the tricentennial, the state's tourism industry is acknowledging the importance of French in the array of experiences offered to visitors, especially those from Canada and France.

In 1699, the French began a process of exploration that culminated in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The French culture established very deep roots in Louisiana's rich cultural soil. That culture has tended to absorb other cultures and even today remains a vital component in the definition of the state's character.

However, in the last 30 years, there has been a great rebirth of interest in the state's French and Acadian history and heritage. Leading the way was a recognition that the French language was in danger of being lost to future generations, and there was a period during which French was outlawed in the schools. Children who spoke French at home arrived at school unable to speak any English and were punished for speaking French.

Along with the injunction against speaking French came a depreciation of the value of the culture. In 1968, the Louisiana legislature created the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, and the organization remains a vibrant force in the preservation of French culture in state.

Nearly a quarter of the state's 4 million-plus population claim Acadian, French or French-Canadian ancestry, according to a 1990 census. More than 260,000 residents reported they speak French at home, including Creole French.

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