In 1883, during the 3rd Republic, France was a major colonial power. That was when L'Alliance Française was founded in Paris and although it's mainly known for the diplomas it offers in French as a foreign language, its primary purpose was, and still is, to "faire défendre la culture française" for the benefit of francophiles in different parts of the world. It is a not-for-profit organisation.
On Monday this week, with a francophone / francophile group, I met the director of the Alliance in Canada, M. Hervé Devoulon. He also runs the Ottawa chapter (which is on MacLaren Street), having previously worked in South Korea, Venezuela, North Korea (!) and Australia.
He told us that, in the early days, it was mainly the expatriate wives of French diplomats who founded and managed the local associations comprising the Alliance, who created libraries and organised lectures in French in places like Melbourne, Sydney, Montreal, Toronto. Each group required permission to operate from the management in Paris. Language courses were initiated later, in response to demand, and the Alliance now has a presence in 136 countries, with 30 chapters in Australia alone, for example, each of them independent of the others. The country where the Alliance Française is making the most progress these days, where business men want to give the impression of being well enough educated to speak French, is China, "... sous la protection de certaines universités chinoises," so that the administration there becomes "un peu compliquée."
The biggest Alliance Française in the world is in Lima.
Brazil, Chile and Cuba (at least for the last couple of years) are being very supportive, and since the Berlin Wall fell, many Alliance Française associations have sprung up in Eastern European countries too. In the United States there is less French language teaching going on but a lot of "petits clubs" in existence. In Canada the Alliance Française is represented in 9 locations, the largest chapter being in Toronto where 75 profs are employed to tutor 6000 students.
M. Devoulon was very careful about answering questions on how the Alliance Française is received in French-speaking Canada. "On y va avec prudence," he said. "Je marche sur les oeufs." In the end he confessed that the Alliance no longer has a home in Montreal; in fact "le Canada francophone n'a pas besoin de nous pour défendre la langue." The Quebeckers have their own way of doing that.
It is the western provinces, he said, that represent today's "territoire de mission" in Canada.
Ottawa's branch of the Alliance Française (founded in 1905) is above all a cultural centre. It has a modest "médiathèque" where you can rent French films (including films made in Quebec). It puts on exhibitions on a theme by groups of local artists; for example in 2008 Chris and I attended a vernissage there when Raymond Aubin's photographs were on display. Photography competitions, seminars and lecture series take place. On Fridays (in competition with the Friday film evenings at the Goethe-Institut!) the Alliance shows a film in French––entrance is free to all.
Of course what keeps the Ottawa chapter in business is its role in the "marché des langues," offering French courses, especially to the large number of anglophone government workers employed in Ottawa who have to take exams in Canada's official 2nd language. In comparison with the other private language schools in and around town, M. Devoulon claimed that instructors at the Alliance Française are "plus professionnels," having had their training in France.