French in the Heart of Texas

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Heritage Austin

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series providing a glimpse into small but significant cultural communities in Austin.

With a blue cap pressing down his silver, sweat-dampened hair, Arsene Dupin mischievously grinned and held out his cupped hand holding three lead balls, an army-green handkerchief and a “marqueur de poche” or pocket scoreboard, which has beside “nous,” or “we,” the number 13 and beside “eux,” or “them,” a zero.

President of the Heart of Texas Petanque Club, a club celebrating petanque, the national sport of France, Dupin is just one of the roughly 1,000 French citizens living in Austin.

According to the Alliance Française d’Austin, a nonprofit organization that aims to share French culture with the Austin community, the exact size of the French community in Austin is unknown. Since the figure comprises only those French citizens registered with the French Consulate’s office, the number could be higher. Evidently, their tricolor flag of blue, white and red rippling across pockets of neighborhoods is a subtle, yet influential presence of French culture and nationalism in Austin.

After a heated, yet still amicable, game of petanque on the shady lawn of the French Legation Museum, Dupin and his partner won their match with a perfect score. Similar to the Italian game of bocce ball, pentanque is a game of finesse where players try to land metal weights closest to a marker. Old French for “feet together,” the player has to toss the balls while standing tightly in a hoop.

“You know, if we were in France, the losing team would have to kiss the fanny of a woman statue,” Dupin said with a laugh.

Though Austin is far from Bordeaux, France, where he grew up playing petanque, traces of his home country resonate throughout the city.

“France and America have been brothers for generations,” he said. “And when you’re brothers, you definitely have that special relationship where you help each other and go against each other.”

The presence of French culture in Austin can be traced to when Texas became a republic in 1836. France was the first European nation to recognize Texas as such. Before officially recognizing Texas as a sovereign nation, the King of France sent Jean Pierre Isador Alphonse Dubois de Saligny to scope out the land. Dubois’ main objective in Austin was to gauge what Texas could offer.

France thought it could send colonists over to Texas and trade cotton and wine, noted Stephanie Jarvis, director of the French Legation Museum,

Built in 1840, the legation served as a diplomatic outpost between the two countries as well as home to Dubois, who because of the treaty was promoted to “chargé d’affaires,” or a liaison. During his residency, Dubois pushed for the passing of the Franco-Texian Bill of 1841, an agreement that would have allowed exploration and settlement in West Texas and the import of more than 5,000 French colonists in a span of eight years. But the bill never passed, leaving the open question: could the French population be a lot bigger today had the bill passed?

Despite the diminutive size of the French community in Austin, there are plenty of opportunities for people to explore the country’s robust and intimate culture.

The Alliance Francaise hosts traditional annual events, such as “La Chandeleur,” or Crepe Day, in February and Bastille Day in July. The alliance also puts on monthly cafe meet ups and petanque twice a month on the lawns of the museum.
For Dupin, instead of flying back to France to cure his homesickness, he’s brought France to him.

“When I first came to Texas [in 2005], there was a little bit of culture missing from my own country,” he said.

Dupin decided to create a club for the sport he loved playing with his grandfather as a child in the south of France to Austin. With only a few players three years ago, the club now has more than 70 members from all backgrounds, from Morrocan to Chilean to college students to the retired.

Though he has only lived in Austin for a handful of years, Dupin first came to the states more than 30 years ago. On a whim, he sailed from Paris to New York City with his motorcycle, and from New York, he rode to Alaska in a span of one-and-a-half years. Originally, he wanted to see all the national parks.

“The French people, they travel a lot, but they don’t immigrate,” Dupin said. “Because France in general is self-contained.”
But he also noted that there is a strong French culture that he identified with here in Austin.

“I carry France in my heart all the time,” he said, “But I became American, so my heart is to the U.S.A.”