Ici on parle francais.
French is spoken on the premises, is what it means, and if some people in Louisiana have their way, the "premises" may someday be the entire state.
Children can start learning "the language of heaven" -- frequently from native speakers -- in first grade, and students and teachers can get scholarships to study in Quebec and France.
This saturation in French and things French is bankrolled by a $3.5 million "foreign aid" program that brin gs instructors from abroad to teach Louisianans their colonial language.
The money -- from the governments of France, Belgium and Canada (the province of Quebec) -- is supplemented annually with $290,000 from state and federal sources and supports the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), which Lafayette lawyer James Domengeaux began 11 years ago to keep the French language and culture in the state from dying out with grandmere and grandpere.
The first teachers from France arrived in 1970, and many more followed. This year, more than 300 teachers from France, Quebec, Belgium and Tunisia have come to Louisiana to do linguistic missionary work.
CODOFIL "is better known in Paris than Carter," said Domengeaux, 73.
The program has been such a success that French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing came to Lafayette, the unofficial capital of French Louisiana, during his 1976 visit to the United States. Speaking in French, he told his listeners to keep their cultural ties to France strong.
But francophilia hasn't always been so ardent, even though France is the home of Louisiana's founders, its earliest colonists and its matchless cuisine. As Louisiana came more under the influence of the culture rooted on the Eastern Seaboard, English became increasingly dominant.
By the mid-19th century, the only variant of the language remaining in active use was Cajun French, an unwritten hybrid dialect of French, English and Indian. Cajun French, a fractured remnant of the language spoken by the original Acadians who came here after the British threw them out of Nova Scotia more than 200 years ago, was perpetuated by people who had little, if any, education.
This association gave French such a poor image in Louisiana that Cajun pupils were frequently punished for speaking their dialect in school.
'There's nothing wrong with our French that a little grammar won't cure" chuckled Domengeaux.
Like one-third of the state's inhabitants, Domengeaux grew up speaking French without being able to read or write the language. Because of his affaire de coeur with his ancestral tongue, Domengeaux, who served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1940s, began lobbying in 1941 for the creation of a program to make French respectable once more.
"I began this with the recognition that cultural blindness and provincialism were contrary to the national interest and Louisiana's interests," he said. "We in Louisiana had a great natural advantage to learn two languages with equal facility, and that culture was being lost. Something had had to be done."
But it took 27 years for the Louisiana Legislature to set up CODOFIL under the state education department. Domengeaux became its unsalaried director, a position that put him in charge of nine paid staffers. "I run the whole goddamn show," he says.
GODOFIL's eventual goal, claims Domengeaux, is to give enough Louisianans fluency in French that the foreign instructors can be phased out. lThis fall between 40 and 50 Louisiana teachers are in the CODOFIL program and the number of imported instructors has been reduced, but Domengeaux said he doesn't expect to eliminate the imports entirely before the end of the century.
"You don't accomplish the impossible overnight," he said. "We've had small miracles, but not any big miracles yet. To a great extent we've retained and brought back pride to a people who had lost pride and affection for their history and culture.
"The old people, particularly those who don't speak the language correctly, can't save the language, but the young people can. And this program has come along just in time for them because, generally, by the time the third generation of Americans comes along, they've stopped speaking that language unless they get some instruction in it."
Despite the progress French has made under CODOFIL, problems remain. Domengeaux always is short of money for the operations, and in 1973, a dozen foreign teachers grumbled that they were underpaid and that their terms of employment had never been spelled out.
Domengeaux called them malcontents, and five were fired, but after the dispute explicit contracts were drawn up for all teachers to sign before coming to Louisiana.
Last spring, Domengeaux got himself into a flap when he opposed an attempt to introduce a Cajun French textbook into the school system. Even though Cajun is not a written language, the book's author used the alphabet to approximate Cajun sounds.
The dispute between Domengeaux and Donald Faulk, the book's author, brought out points that have been raised for and against CODOFIL.
Claiming that many Louisiana resent the outlay of tax money to import teachers, many of whom are not certified in their native lands, Faulk said, "Domengeaux wants to develop relations with France because the French government is pinning gold medals on him."
Domengeaux said his objections to the book were cultural because "trying to teach Cajun French would be like trying to teach redneck English."
In defense of the foreign instructors, he said, "French has been in the hands of the uneducated Cajun for 200 years, and we have lost it."