The following articles is a reprint (with thanks) from the May 27, 1998 issue of Times of Acadiana:
In 1999, Acadiana will take part in FrancoFête and Congrès Mondial Acadien, two distinct celebrations with one common goal – sharing Louisiana’s cultural heritage with a worldwide audience.
The founding of Louisiana could not have occurred on a more appropriate day. On Mardi Gras 1699, the French explorer Iberville founded a temporary outpost at the mouth of the Mississippi River and christened it Point Mardi Gras.
Although the land had been claimed for King Louis XIV by LaSalle 17 years earlier, Point Mardi Gras represented the beginning of the colonization of the enormous French territory that included all lands drained by the Mississippi River. It also represented the biginning of a distinctive French way of life that persisted through the Spanish and American colonial periods. Decades later, Acadian exiles arrived in Louisiana after being forced from their homes when the British took control of Nova Scotia from France in 1755. To this day, Louisiana
bears the indelible marks of its French history and heritage.
In 1999, the state of Louisiana will celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding. Using the establishment of Point Mardi Gras as the start of Louisiana’s French colonial period, the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism – headed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – is preparing a tricentennial celebration for 1999. Dubbed FrancoFête ’99, the year-long, statewide commemoration of Louisiana’s French heritage boasts nearly 600 fairs, festivals, exhibits and events.
One of the biggest component of FrancoFête will be the two-week Congrès Mondial Acadien scheduled for August 1999. The second reunion of its kind, Congrès gathers Acadian descendants from all overthe world in commemoration of Le Grand Dérangement. Congrès festivities will include family reunions and twon twinning celebrations in addition to a line-up of cultural activities all its own. Chosen as one of FrancoFête’s major events, Congrès 1999 will attempt to rekindle the scope and impact of the inaugural Congrès which was held in various
communities throughout the province of New Brunswick in 1994.
Led by Blanco, state tourism officials are using Louisiana’s tricentennial celebration to showcase the state’s tourism industry. In 1999, officials hope to draw as many as 28 million visitors – three million more than usual – with an economic impact of $8 billion dollars. But if the emotionally charged reunion of 1994 Congrès are any indication, the Acadian celebration will be less tourism promotion and more cultural reaffirmation.
“It’s an awesome feeling to see that your ancestral trails branch out in so many directions,” says Blanco, who traveled to Shédiac, New Brunswick, in 1994 to attend the Babineau family reunion. Hosting a second Congrès in south Louisiana seemed only natural to those who attended the first one. “I think it naturally occurred to a lot of people simultaneously. We were constatly bumping into people we knew, and everyone was saying we’ve got to do this at home,” Blanco says.
“While it always enhances a pleople to explore cultural influences, FrancoFête will be a wonderful cultural and tourism event,” Blanco says. Organizers hope that touting a year-long schedule with a distinct French twist will reap big benefits – and not just for 1999. In the competitive world of tourism – where anything that makes you different makes you a more attractive destination – Louisiana’s French heritage is seen as a blessing from the past, and one the state needs to emphasize. While FrancoFête may be a tricentennial celebration, it is also a media blitz designed to capture international attention and international tourist dollars for years to come.
“FrancoFête is the umbrella over all the activities taking place in ’99,” says FrancoFête administrator Curtis Joubert. “We mesh every fair, festival and attraction into one giant, year-long celebration.” The idea is
to get the visitors to Louisiana – whether in 1999 or subsequent years – and then help them seek out various areas of interest, Joubert says. Rather than focusing solely on a slate of special events like Congrès or
Baton Rouge’s Bonne Fête birthday celebration, FrancoFête’s emphasis is on festivals, attractions and activities throughout the state that would normally be held anyway.
“Louisiana has a new found attitude about tourism, and Acadiana is leading the way,” Joubert says. “Everyone wants to show off their particular area of the state; that’s a great change from 20 years ago.” And FrancoFête is just the beginning. “It isn’t going to end in ’99,” Joubert says. The tricentennial is just the perfect time to get the
machinery in place, both for larger efforts, like the approaching anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, and the more everyday efforts, like offering bilingual signage and services.
Major Festivals and events aren’t the only things to qualify as part of the FrancoFête agenda. The emphasis is on the little things that Louisiana can do to highlight its distinctive culture, like erecting bilingual signage at state lines and encouraging welcome center employees to learn a few basic French phrases. A major goal for FrancoFête is for Louisiana to become more French-friendly – and by doing so to become more attractive to tourists, wherever they may originate.
Joubert, who now spends his days traveling the state preaching the gospel of FrancoFête, emphasizes that organizing the tricentennial in this manner will enable smaller towns and events to market themselves to the world. “I tell them that if no one comes, we’ve failed, but if no one comes, they’ve probably failed, too.
The French emphasis of the tricentennial does not exclude any part of the state, Joubert insists. While it might seem to favor south Louisiana, other areas ofthe state are discovering their own French connections. “Cajuns have attracted the most attention,” Joubert says, “but they are only one small group of French settlers, only part of the French base. Every part of Louisiana was touched by French influence – whether direct or indirect.