Written by Olympe Scherer ’21. Art by Lauren Campbell ’21.
I hesitate to call myself an immigrant. I moved from Paris to New York when I was eleven months old (in 1999) and lived there my whole life. My parents decided to move when they both secured auspicious jobs – banker and insurance agent – in the US. At the time, it was good to be French with a business school degree. The French government paid for “expatriates” to settle abroad comfortably, covering housing expenses for the first couple of years. My parents explain to me that these benefits make sense: “When you leave your country of origin, you leave a network, family, and the culture you’ve known your whole life. Without a little bit of support, French citizens would struggle to live abroad.”
The only recipients of these privileges that I know are upper middle class, white collar workers like my parents. In 2012, a poll for TV5Monde showed that 37% of French expats would vote for conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, whereas 29.5% of all French voters were predicted to vote for him, and he would lose to socialist François Hollande in the final round (Ipsos Logica). Nicolas Sarkozy epitomizes the French political establishment with free market values, and usually draws the votes of upper middle class French people (you might be familiar with the saying “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” – that’s exactly what Sarko is about). When Sarkozy was president, a law was implemented in 2007 such that school tuition for expatriates’ children was paid for by the government (souce: leFigaro). The law, which alloted 39.3 million euros to expatriate education in 2010, was heavily criticized as a “fiscal shield for the most rich.” (Figaro) According to LeMonde, the law was officially reformed in 2013 to factor in an expatriate’s economic status before allocating scholarship help.
Another reason for the reform is that things stopped being so sweet after the 2008 crisis. France’s declining economy forced president Sarkozy to roll back unjust expenses from the past. But I can say that, according to my parents, for 3 years of my life I benefited from unsustainable and unfair government sponsorship. Those thousand dollars a year in school fees? Covered. Covered because Nicolas Sarkozy wanted (among other things) to keep wealthy expatriates on his good side.
I never had to risk my life to come to the US. In 2011, my parents weren’t harassed when they applied for and acquired American citizenship. Throughout my life, I was able to go back to my country of origin and spend time with relatives. I’ve been able to practice my native tongue in public without prejudice. I was never told I didn’t belong in the US. So I hesitate to call myself an immigrant. The term “expatriate” is just right because France is like an ex: I can return to it, and it’ll always be a part of my heart.
The Lycée Français de New York (LFNY) was founded in 1935 by Comte Charles de Ferry de Fontnouvelle, the then French consul general, who was tasked with improving French lives in Manhattan. There are over 70,000 French nationals in the greater New York Area according to a 2010 survey by the French embassy. (Over 27,000 are “registered in Manhattan with the French Consulate.”) Four New York schools – Lyceum Kennedy, FASNY (École Franco-américaine de New York), LFNY and the École – offer a French-American bilingual education, of which the first three allow students to graduate high school with a French baccalaureate.
A “Pre-K through 13” private school, LFNY is home to 1,300 students. There are thus around 90 students per grade.
When I was 6 years old I had already met eleven people in my graduating class. There are about 90 people in each grade. I may not have grown up in a small town but the notion of “everyone knows everything about everyone, instantly” held true for the students of Lycée Français. Breakups, suspensions, parties, and later SAT scores and college admissions were common knowledge, and there’s reason to think this extended to the school staff. My bio teacher knew, before me, that my first relationship with a boy was crashing and burning, before me.
The dress code goes as follows: white shirt with collar (collarless students are punished by the administration), gray pants or skirt, and dark shoes (no stripes, no white soles).
Allegedly, the dress code serves as an equalizer to conceal class disparities. It costs $38,050 to attend Lycée Français for a year (compared to $50K at Columbia Prep and $51K at Dalton, two Manhattan private schools). Nobody knows how many students receive financial aid (the school does not provide this statistic), but we knew there was financial aid. Socioeconomic differences were not something we students discussed frequently. But they were everywhere. My friend Tara remembers gushing over a fellow student’s coat, one that she had seen online and cost $3,000. When she reported this information to her friend, the latter said “that’s not too bad.” The dress code does not restrict the wearing of: expensive coats, luxury bags, costly hair maintenance. The dress code therefore does not “even the playing field.” It does, however, erase discourse regarding socioeconomic privilege.
There was a girl who joined Lycée in seventh grade. Let’s call her Amélie.
Amélie came from an affluent family of clothing designers. She lived her whole life in France up to the point where she moved to New York for her parents’ work.
She had brown hair and delicate, honey-colored highlights that needed a touch-up at the salon every two to three weeks. Amélie’s biggest fear was that her roots would start to show, and she shared this fear with most girls in her group of friends.
When Amélie first arrived at Lycée, she was assigned to the level-one English course with the other French-French kids. (Weird distinction, I know. I’m French but I’m not French-French. I’m French-American. How are you supposed to call regular, plain, monolingual French folks?) Amélie had the sweet, vaguely British accent of someone who learns English in France (you thought American accents were top dog, didn’t you? Have you even considered geographic proximity?), a characteristic that my mother had up until her second or third year of living in the US.
But improving her accent was not Amélie’s priority. In fact, it was hard to tell if she had any priorities at all. She liked socializing, dressing up, and taking smoke breaks during lunch. If she had any life aspirations, they weren’t apparent to me. Least of her worries was English class, English homework, and those nutty English teachers who taught level-one. Lycée’s curriculum options allowed her to graduate high school while taking a minimum amount of English-language classes. One, to be exact. One English class per year. In New York. In the United States of America.
Now, I’m the last person to condemn immigrants for not mastering English. But Lycée Français offered top-notch English classes. So, Amélie didn’t have an excuse for not trying. She had years ahead of her to become proficient in English, a skill which, even back in France, is a near-requirement for work. Instead, Amélie exercised that privilege that I’m here trying to describe: the privilege to not assimilate.
To show you what I mean, let’s walk through a day in the life of Amélie. She wakes up, maybe exchanges a few words in French with her parents, and gets to school. She greets each of her friends with two kisses. Most of them are French-French, and they chat in French while they walk to class. The class is taught in French. There’s a solid chance that Amélie’s teacher themself is French-French and currently enrolled in an intensive English class. Lunch break means salad + cigarette, and a conversation in French. The only hurdle is having to order the salad in English, but the people at the sandwich shop, Beanocchio’s, know her salad so well there’s almost no speaking involved. More classes taught in French in the afternoon. A coffee is ordered at Oslo, which requires a little bit of English, or rather Italian, (macchiato, cappuccino, and the likes) which is manageable because Amélie has traveled to Italy many times. When she goes home, her homework is in French. There’s a full-time housekeeper at home, so she doesn’t need to worry about doing groceries, phoning the landlord when there’s a leak, or holding down a job, all actions which might entail speaking English. Her parents are friends with other French-French expats and don’t befriend Americans unless they have to. They’re so well-connected that finding a nice job won’t be an issue, English-proficient or not. All the adults she’s around, all her friends, peers and teachers speak French.
So: it’s more than plausible that during her time in New York, when English class bored her, Amélie looked outside the window, admired the sleek architecture of Lycée Français, detected that familiar francophone elitism, and wondered, why bother?
Amélie’s story is akin to my own. I made zero friends outside of Lycée growing up. It was rare to have to sustain a conversation solely in English, so I was lazy and mixed the languages. The difference between Amélie and me is perhaps that I’m on a moral high horse. I think that because I agonize over my privilege it makes me a better person. But something will always feel strange about Lycée, and it might just be the fact that they make us learn English.
At Lycée, I took French literature and all of my STEM classes (Math, Biology, Physics, Chemistry) in French. My Humanities classes (English, History, Geography) were in English. I took Spanish, and Cinema and Latin classes as soon as they were offered. My favorite subject would change from English to History and back.
At Lycée, I spoke to most of my friends in a mixture of French and English. So, for a long time, I was under the impression that I had a facility with words. It was the impression of always having the right adjective, verb or noun to describe what I felt. And so, starting in sixth grade, I filled notebooks with poetry and stories. In class, when I began to earn a reputation as a writer, people asked me if I preferred to write in French or in English.
Faithful to Lycée’s idealized bilingualism, I replied “both.” As if I could switch off into French right now and not lose many readers. But the reality was, at the time, that I could switch off into French, whenever I wanted. Those French quips in Jane Eyre, and Spanish swear words in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made me believe there was room for bilingualism in the literary world.
But there isn’t, really. In an English text, French words come off confusing, at best, and pretentious, at worst. The opposite (English words in a French text) is less jarring, but I’ve come to understand that I haven’t mastered French enough to become a French author. Sure, I can write a mean analytical essay. But the last time I showed my grandmother a poem I wrote in French, she spent 70% of the time correcting my mistakes. The dream of bilingual writing is just that: a dream.
A day doesn’t go by without me mispronouncing a word in English. My friends point it out because I told them I want to know. It doesn’t make it easy. It leaves me with a sick feeling that I’ve reached a linguistic max, and some of my French has to go if I want to fully speak English, let alone become an author. Every awkward sentence is a double defeat.
So thank you, Lycée, for the brief burst of confidence. I’ll never be normal, now. I grew up in New York but I’m missing out on at least half of American cultural references. I’ve toiled for years to catch up on the classics, but I still haven’t watched Home Alone or Princess Bride. And if I go back to France, they’ll spend the entire conversation correcting my vocab mistakes. Or treating me like a unicorn (“L’Américaine,”they call me). I’ll never be normal, now.