The large presence of French natives in the Princeton region is attributed to a number of factors: the area’s proximity to urban and rural life, the cultural and academic resources of Princeton University, the presence of large international businesses and industry, and shared taste for liberty, fraternity, and equality.
Interestingly it was the spirit of liberty that forged the ongoing New Jersey and French union through a sister cities relationship between Princeton and the City of Colmar in the Alsace region of France. And while that agreement between the two became official in 1997, its roots and history are deeper.
As former Princeton Mayor Marvin Reed and his wife, Ingrid, shared in a recent telephone conversation, in 1986 delegates from Colmar — a medieval city of 65,000 people centrally located west of the German border — arrived in New York City to attend the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, a work created by one of Colmar’s most famous sons, August Bartholdi.
When the Colmar delegates asked to visit a small American town, someone recalled a Princeton-based writer’s work on the French involvement with the American Revolution and suggested nearby Princeton, New Jersey.
The delegates arrived, toured the neo-Gothic styled campus and city, met the New Orleans-born Princeton Mayor Barbara Sigmund, casually suggested a sister cities relationship, and . . . voila!
As the New York Times reported on that relationship in 1998, the residents of the two cities had been “going back and forth for the last 12 years . . . Those trips have included official visits by elected officials; exchanges of groups ranging from youth soccer teams to musical groups (the American Boychoir and the Westminster Choir have performed in Colmar), and business trips to discuss investment possibilities.”
One physical reminder of that relationship is the life-size statute of “The Vintner of Colmar” in front of the former Princeton Borough Hall. It is a replica of a Colmar work by Bartholdi presented to citizens of Princeton by the city of Colmar in 1988.
The relationship continues today mainly through periodic official visits and an ongoing residency exchange between high schools in Princeton and Colmar.
In addition to the Sister Cities project, Princeton has the following organizations and projects that strengthen the French connection:
The Alliance Francaise de Princeton is an independent non-profit cultural and educational association that promotes and enhances knowledge and appreciation of French language and culture, and encourages interaction among French, speakers of French, and all those with an interest in the French way of life.
It is part of the larger Alliance Francaise, founded in 1883 in Paris to promote French language and culture and to foster friendly relations between Francophones and Francophiles regardless of their background or beliefs. It is now the largest network of French language and culture in the world, with 1,300 chapters in 112 countries. The organization also focuses on the mastery and testing of proficiency of the French language.
The all-volunteer Princeton chapter takes no public funding and supports itself through membership dues, tuition fees, and fundraising events.
Members can participate in the two monthly conversation groups at McCaffrey’s supermarket at the Princeton Shopping Center, a monthly happy hour at the Nassau Inn, participatory workshops and classes, and special events. Memberships range from $25 to $100. www.allianceprinceton.com/links.html
L’Association Francophone de Princeton is a nonprofit organization designed to welcome and host the Francophone community of Princeton and the surrounding area.
It organizes clubs, events for various age groups, workshops, and trips to cultural events in the region. The organization also publishes “Le Guide de Princeton et des environs,” with topics including finding schools, obtaining a driver’s license, food and apparel shopping, cultural resources, and hiring a babysitter. Memberships range from $21 to $42 and include the guide. www.asfprinceton.com
The French American School of Princeton is an independent nonprofit organization that opened with five students in September, 2000. It is now located in the neo-Gothic-style former St. Joseph Seminary on Mapleton Road and provides classes for approximately 200 preschool to middle school students. The average class size is 14 students with an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
The school boasts a bilingual and bicultural program the uses a combination of “the French structured learning methodology and the American pedagogical approach that encourages self-confidence, creativity, and the respect of others.” The ratio between French and English begins at 90 to 10 percent and increases until it is 50-50 by grade four. And students are expected to meet or exceed expectations of both the French Ministry of Education and New Jersey standards-based programs. Tuition ranges from $7,350 for part-time preschool to $18,535 for full-time students. ecoleprinceton.org
Oh-la-la! That’s the upbeat name of a series of sales organized by French designers and artisans living in the region. The activity began in 2013 originally as a private affair where French makers and takers met in homes. The sessions went public in 2015 with their “unique and immersive shopping experience based on a convivial and creative atmosphere” at the Hopewell Train Station.
Participating vendors — all either French citizens, raised in a French environment, or attached to French culture — include French home decor by Tacks and Fabric’s Sophie Bailly-Soulier, who also serves as a coordinator and keeps the website, tacksandfabrics.com; La Dune Jewelry, by Sandrine Ducos, www.facebook.com/la-dune; sculptures and suspended creations by Marie-Mathilde Laplanche; paintings by Carole Jury, carolejury.com; handmade French confectioneries by Les Delices d’Annelise, lesdelicesannelise.com; children’s book author and illustrator Catherine Arnoux, runningfrommyshadow.com; handmade tailored Parisian dresses by Cristina Depascal, depascalatelier.com; and photographs by Laurent Ouzilou, 500px.com/laurentouzilou.
The next Oh-la-la! Ephemeral Boutique is Friday through Sunday, December 9 through 11, at the Hopewell Railroad Station, 2 Railroad Place, Hopewell. For more information go to ohlala-ephemeralboutique.com or www.facebook.com/ohlalafrenchsale.