People always give me funny looks when I say I take French. I’m from Texas after all—shouldn’t I know Spanish? And while I’ve picked up enough Spanish not to embarrass myself with a Mexican menu, it’s always nice to find Lance Armstrong is not Texas’s only tie to France.
It’s a Saturday night in Austin, and I’m one of about eight hundred partygoers celebrating the 220th July 14 anniversary of the French Revolution at the Alliance Francaise’s annual Bastille Day celebration. To a bystander, the French red, white, and blue covering the lawn of the historic French Legation Museum might seem as if a confused group of Austinites was celebrating the Fourth of July a week too late. But when night falls, the scene turns into an outdoor Parisian café nestled into the heart of Texas.
Men in cowboy hats sip wine out of plastic cups under hanging lights while children with their faces painted learn pétanque, the traditional French ball game, on the lawn. A group of Austin jugglers entertain families as they sample meals such as shrimp eddy with lemon-tarragon cream sauce from Gumbo’s restaurant followed by a scoop of Austin’s original Amy’s Ice Cream. A swing dance group, the Red Rhythm Jumpers, twirls on the dance floor as Olivier Giraud and his jazz band Continental Graffiti play music reminiscent of Paris in the thirties.
Parisian Valerie Horne, a graphic artist and art teacher in Austin for the past fourteen years, stands out as the perfect blend of French Texas. In a short black dress, cowboy hat, and bulky turquoise necklace, she waves a cigarette and fan as she effortlessly mingles with the crowd, saying “Bonjour” with a kiss on the cheek. Nearby a volunteer sports an old French World Cup jersey as he passes out tickets for drinks, and a University of Texas professor poses with his wife for photo under the French flag.
The Bastille Day celebration began in Austin in 1996. The event, which costs $8 to attend, raises money for the Alliance Française d’Austin’s scholarship program and provides information on the alliance’s French language school, ranked thirteenth out of 130 national chapters.
At first people came for the music, says the school’s director, Diane Gervais, in a French accent. (I ask her to explain in English but find myself responding with “Oui.”) “When I arrived here I thought, ‘Oh my God what am I going to do in Texas? People are interested in Spanish not French.’ But little by little, our name is becoming more well-known,” she explains.
University of Texas at Austin president Williams Powers Jr. recognized the relationship between France and Texas, and this past May, he received the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur for his work establishing the French Judicial Visiting Fellowship at UT.
But from Tex-Mex restaurants to Spanish-language radio stations, it’s easy to see the Spanish and Mexican influence in Texas. The French relationship with Texas, however, can seem as hidden as the cream in a chocolate éclair. History shows it is just as rich.
La Salle’s Legacy
A few blocks away at the Texas State Cemetery, the faint notes of the band reach the grave of a Frenchman who died when his ship, La Belle, wrecked in Matagorda Bay. A French explorer, Robert Cavalier de La Salle established Texas’s first European colony, Fort Saint Louis, in present-day Victoria County in 1685.
But the French in Texas made the Spanish nervous. Paranoid the French would ally with the Native Americans to take over the northern Mexico silver mines, the Spanish sent expeditions into Texas to eradicate the French, says Jeff Durst, the Texas Historical Commission’s regional archeologist for South and East Texas.
After four years living under constant threat of Karankawa attack, the French left for Canada, and the Spanish took their place, building on top of the remains of Fort Saint Louis. “That is about as poignant as you can get—that the French are really what brought the Spanish,” says Durst, who worked to excavate the site. “The Spanish came right to the very spot where the French had been and built the biggest Spanish fort that was ever built in Texas.”
In addition to inciting the Spanish to settle in Texas, the La Salle expedition left behind wild pigs whose descendants continue to roam the Texas countryside to this day. Almost two centuries later, pigs again would play a part in leaving France’s mark on Texas.
A Frenchman on the Frontier
Ten-year-old Lexi Lawson dodges a juggler’s throw and skips through the crowd to help with the silent auction to raise money for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Earlier in the day, the junior docent-in-training helped lead me on a tour of the two-and-a-half acre grounds of the French Legation, the oldest building in Austin.
France became the first country to recognize the Republic of Texas in 1939. Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois, a representative of King Louis Philippe of France, arrived in Austin in 1840, when the town was less than a year old, to manage the French Legation.
In Texas, the Frenchman, who declared himself a count and added “de Saligny” to his name, was not a favorite of the locals, museum aid Joann Shaw says. When innkeeper Richard Bullock’s pigs wandered into his lawn, he ordered them killed. A fist fight, court argument, and several pork dinners later, he was run out of town.
The property became the home of the Robertson family in 1848 and was acquired by the State of Texas in 1949.
Vive La France
As I step onto the dance floor, I’m reminded that if you look hard enough, you can find French influence and culture in Texas today. My dance partner is signed up for the September French classes at the alliance, I have an invitation to play a game of pétanque on Sunday, and my pockets are filled with the names of places to go and people to see when I visit Paris in the fall.
As the revelers stand for the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” some sing the words confidently in perfect French while others follow along haltingly to the lyrics on the back of their program. But whatever France means to each, for a minute everyone has come together in recognition.
And by the end of the night, as the music quickens and the wine flows, people forget to watch the streaming of Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France projected on one of the historic French Texan walls.