The French Institute -which has welcomed within its walls personalities as prestigious and diverse as T.S. Eliot, Quentin Blake, Jean Renoir, Eugène Ionesco, Charles De Gaulle, Salman Rushdie, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Terry Gilliam, Jude Law or Stephen Frears- celebrates its centenary this year. So this was the perfect occasion for Chic-Londres to talk with its director, who is also Cultural Counsellor at the French Embassy in Britain, about the past, present and future of this venerable institution.
What is the role of the French Institute in 2010?
It remains above all to promote French language and culture in Britain, with around 50,000 people visiting the Institute every year. The building and the library -which is a Grade II listed venue- are open to the public, which can access for free to all the French newspapers, magazines, books and DVDs. Within the Institute, the Ciné Lumière -which is one of London’s top repertory movie theatres in London and which was reopened last year by Catherine Deneuve after an extensive refurbishment- plays a prominent role, with 80% of its public made of British who love French cinema. In this area however, our role is also to encourage cultural diversity, which is why our program also includes world cinema. The Institute is also very active outisde its walls, particularly in music and visual arts: for example, the concert that electro-pop French band Air will give at the Roundhouse on the 26th of February is organised in partnership with us. We will also organise a «Francophony Week » in March, in collaboration with British partners, which will include a series of educational events, such as a « French words competition » involving thousands of English schools.
What are the links between the Institute and the French Lycée Charles De Gaulle?
When the Institute was created in 1910 by Marie d’Orliac, a very determined 19-year-old French university lecturer, its main role was to promote the best of French culture towards the British public. During the First World War however, i t was faced with an influx of French and Belgian refugees, and therefore opened its doors to French-speaking pupils, which marked the beginning of the French Lycée, which French and British companies helped to finance. So for a long time, the Institute and the Lycée formed a single institution, which despite their separation into two entities in 1963, still have obvious strong links, both in terms of geographical proximity and programs.
What will mark the centenary celebrations?
When the French ambassador in the UK, M. Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, hosted the centenary celebrations opening reception at the Residence de France on 12 January, he introduced a honorary committee, of prominent British and French personalities which include Lady Soames, Winston Churchill’s daughter, Howard Davies, the London School of Econocics Director, Mark Jones, the Victoria & Albert Museum Director, Lionel Barber, The Financial Times Editor, and Vincent de Rivaz, EDF Energy CEO. They have all agreed to play an active role in the celebrations, for example by helping to organise prestigious events around the role of the Institute during the Second World War, when it was made available to Charles De Gaulle and his Free French Forces or universities lectures centred on French culture. But the centenary also gives us a focus to think about the Institute’s future, which is why we will be launching on May 27 a Digital Institute, which will be a digital platform with quality content available online from anywhere in the UK, which will make French culture much more accessible. All the historical archives -notably those from the Second World War- will be made available online, as well as a collection of rare books in French. Subscribers will also have access to the digital library, which includes about 2,000 new books as well as an extensive collection of French films. It will also be a support tool for learners of French, with podcasts aimed towards beginners being currently produced. This Digital Institute will therefore be able to offer the best of French culture all throughout the UK, therefore touching those who can’t physically come to the French Institute, and the younger generations, who are used to look for information online.
What is the image of French culture in London?
The French culture retains much prestige, but it is often perceived as a culture most notable for its past rather than its contemporary creation. So if some classical artists, such as the composer Debussy, benefits from a huge following in here, there is still much work to be done to promote our culture, in a country which puts great emphasis in creativity. It is also our role to change the image of the French language, which is by far perceived as not so useful and difficult to learn, with the consequence that even though its teaching gets mostly lost in secondary schools, despite the fact it is the first language taught in primary schools. But French culture remains amazingly strong when it comes to films, which are probably our main asset in promoting our culture, with films such as The Class which have been embraced here by the critics as well as the public, probably more so than in France itself. The recent death of director Eric Rohmer also showed how much our cinema is popular in the UK, where French films are perceived as artistic and individual works of art which are however able to convey a universal message.
Institut français du Royaume-Uni et Cinéma Lumière, 17 Queensberry Place, SW7 (South Kensington), www.institut-francais.org.uk
1913: The Institute is integrated within the University of Lille under the name “Institut Français du Royaume-Uni” and receives the visit of President Poincaré
1915: During World War I, the Institute opens its classes to children of French and Belgian refugees, which marks the beginning of the Lycée français.
1927: Visit by President Doumergue
1939: Inauguration of the current premises of the Institute by President Lebrun and HRH Princess Mary. The new Art Deco building comprises a theatre, a library and a ballroom.
1940-1944: The Institut and Lycée Français next door are made available to Charles De Gaulle and its Free French Air Forces.
1946: The Institute is permanently attached to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
1950: The ballroom is redesigned and converted into the main library, while French President Auriol inaugurates the “Bureau du Livre”.
1960: Visit by President De Gaulle
1995: Visit by President Chirac
1998: The theatre becomes a cinema under the name Ciné Lumière and is inaugurated by Catherine Deneuve
2009: Ciné Lumière is reopened by Catherine Deneuve after a massive refurbishment.
2010: The Institute celebrates its centenary.