History

Published on November 13th, 2014 | by Rebekka Laird

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A piece of France in the Nation’s Capital

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Ambassade Française à Washington D.C. Photo par http://washingtondcjcc.org.

Washington DC, the home of France’s largest foreign embassy, is a city that offers much more than political discourse. The capital of the United States has been influenced by the French since its inception, and today remains a proud cultural hub of all things Franco-American. The following article is an overview of the city and its French connections, from the layout and architecture to ways to appreciate the French culture in a more modern way.

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Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. Photo by museumofthecity.org.

City Design and French Architectural Influences
First, what you may have heard is true, Washington DC was planned by a Frenchman. Pierre L’Enfant was born in Paris before the America Revolution in 1754. He served as an engineer during the American Revolution, and was later commissioned by the first president of the United States himself, George Washington, to design the city around the year 1791. He developed the characteristic grid pattern, which placed the Capitol in the center of the city, and long, sweeping avenues that eventually became Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall.

The Capitol Building, one of many iconic symbols of Washington, was originally designed with a heavy French influence as well. Original designs included nods to the Paris Pantheon, the east side of the Louvre, and the dome (added later) is similar to the one at Les Invalides. Walking on the National Mall in front of the Capitol, it is clear how this relatively young city has emulated its great predecessors in Europe. The Capitol and L’Enfant’s Plan are just examples – there are entire books written on the subject of the French influence in Washington DC. See it yourself, sometimes walking through Paris feels like walking through Washington, and vice versa.

Connecting with French Culture in Washington
L’Alliance Française de Washington DC is the number one stop in the city for learning about French culture. The District location is just one branch of over a thousand institutes around the world, and one of 111 in the United States. AF is an international non-profit organization that offers French courses, literature groups, hosts events, and the DC location boasts a library of books written in French and English for the literary Francophile.

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Fête de la Musique celebration at the Embassy of France. Photo by gregslistdc.com.

La Maison Française is the colloquial name for the French Embassy in Washington. It hosts many events for visitors. They are especially well known for their music festival “La Fête de La Musique” held annually around the time of the summer solstice. The French Embassy is very closely connected to L’Alliance Française and helps visitors find courses available to them locally. Insider tip: If you’re looking to drink wine or bring the kids to listen to French story time, L’Alliance Française is the better bet of the two. If you are more interested in lectures about French history or diplomacy, they are typically easier to find via La Maison Française. However, I recommend exploring both websites, as there is a lot of crossover.

I hope this brief guide has whet your appetite to exploring the French side of the US capital, and maybe it will inspire your own adventures. Write a comment below if you’d like an article on anything listed here in more detail!

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About the Author

Rebekka is 23 years old from Washington, DC and has lived in Paris and Vienna for the past year. She speaks English and German, and is slowly but surely learning French in Paris. Before that, she studied International Affairs and Political Science at James Madison University, and hopes to get her Master's in European Studies in the next few years. She enjoys travelling, reading, and cooking with her partner and French tutor, Loïc.



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