In Harlem, French is the weight

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À Harlem, le french weighs in

An astonishing French-language public school in the heart of Harlem, a New York neighborhood in full transformation, bears witness to the mobilization of an entire community to live the language of Molière.

The Chocolat resto-bar illustrates the presence of French in the Harlem district of New York.

NEW YORK – “When I lived in Pennsylvania, I forgot my French,” recalls Suleiman Niasse, manager of the Des Ambassades pastry shop located at the corner of 119th Frederick Douglass Street and Boulevard, New York.

The man of Senegalese origin immigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago. In 2007, his choice to settle in Harlem allowed him, to his great surprise, to reconnect with French, his mother tongue with Wolof.

“When I came here, French came back to me. Now I live in three languages. »

— Suleimane Niasse, manager of the patisserie Des Ambassades

The streets of Central Harlem are bustling with life this late fall. The music of a saxophonist mingles with the hubbub of cars. A discreet sun filters through the clouds to illuminate the classic facades of the buildings on either side of the streets. Vendors offer mangoes, lemons and peanuts from stalls on the sidewalks.

A fruit and vegetable stall in Petit Senegal in Harlem, New York .

We are in the heart of Petit Senegal, a section of Harlem where newcomers from West Africa began to settle in the late 1970s.

There is no It's not uncommon here to be able to be served in French.

Most Africans in New York are here, from the 116th to the 145th, explains Moussa Rachid-Sylla, new co-owner of the small restaurant La Savane. The sixteen colonies [French in Africa] are here: the Ivorians, the Malians, the Senegalese, the Togolese, enumerates this Guinean of origin, in impeccable French.

Since its origins, waves of migration have shaped Harlem, notably making it the epicenter of African-American culture in the United States. Here, African cultures are in the spotlight. Within these, casually, the Francophonie is omnipresent.

The family restaurant La Savane in Harlem, New York, offers typical West African dishes.The Association of Senegalese in America is located in the Harlem neighborhood of New York.French documentation in a Harlem food bank testifies to the presence of a large French-speaking community in the neighborhood.1/3La Savane family restaurant in Harlem, New York, offers typical West African dishes.Photo : Radio-Canada/Lila DussaultSee previous imageSee next image

French is widely spoken in New York, according to a census by business media Insider. After English and Spanish, it is the spoken language at the most prominent home in four of Manhattan's twelve districts, including Central Harlem. This is also the case in other more upscale places such as Gramercy Park, Upper East Side and Upper West Side.

A new district called Petit Paris was also born in 2022 on the border of NoLiTa (North of Little Italy) and Soho.

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In Harlem, preserving and transmitting French is a priority for many families.

“For most children born here, it is important to speak French. Parents impose this language because they want their children to understand it when they return home. »

— Moussa Rachid-Sylla, co-owner of La Savane restaurant

To achieve this end, residents of Harlem mobilized around a decade ago around a project: to set up a public bilingual school where children would follow the American school curriculum, but in French.


The public bilingual school called New York French American Charter School was founded in Harlem in 2010 thanks the mobilization of the community around the French language.

“The idea was to serve the French-speaking community of Harlem, the majority of which are from West Africa. This community could not afford the luxury of a bilingual, often private, school. »

— Mamadou Ba, coordinator of the New York French American Charter School, who has worked there since its opening in 2010

A model has emerged, therefore, different from the French schools exported around the world and which may be inaccessible to less fortunate French speakers.

Not only did the project work, but it also grown up. The school inaugurated the addition of high school classes this fall, in new leased space near the iconic Apollo Theater on 125th Street.

The historic Apollo performance venue in Harlem, New York.

In total, more than 300 students have enrolled since the start of the school year. They sometimes come from as far away as the Bronx or Brooklyn, where large French-speaking communities are also settled. Not to mention non-French-speaking children, especially Latinos or African-Americans, who want to benefit from this inclusive bilingual program.

The school is really characterized by the diversity of teachers and students who come from all over, underlines Mr. Ba.

The use of French also opens new doors for certain traders, like Mariame Conde, owner of bespoke clothing boutique Femme Progressive. In particular, she was approached to present her creations at the film meeting Francophone Short Films in Harlem, which has been held annually since 2012.< /p>

The Progressive Femme custom clothing store in Harlem, New York.

For her, a Guinean of origin, the neighborhood is the place of her reconnection with the French language. Indeed, she spent her childhood in the suburbs of Yonkers, speaking English, Fulani and Malinké, her mother tongues. It was only when I arrived at university that I realized that people here spoke French, she recalls.

She considers that the language of Molière participates to the community spirit of his adopted neighborhood.

“It's nice to talk to her. And in Harlem, it helps to connect people, because being able to speak French to a Senegalese, even if I don't speak Wolof, it helps to get closer, what!

— Mariame Conde, owner of bespoke clothing store Femme progressive

Not to mention the little pleasures in life, like croissants for lunch, she adds . And African dishes in the evening.

The Central Harlem district, where Little Senegal is located , is bubbling with life at the end of autumn.

DIGITAL STORY – The last Franco-Americans

VIDEO – Southern states send thousands of migrants to New York

Report produced as part of an internship at the Radio-Canada office in Washington, thanks to a grant from the Foundation of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM ).

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