Just How French is New Orleans?

In her new book The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City Dianne Guenin-Lelle seeks to answer the question “Why is New Orleans considered a French city?” While it may seem obvious to anyone who has walked the streets of the French Quarter, there is actually a lot to unpack within the question. In the preface, Guenin-Lelle allows that New Orleans does not offer easy answers to the questions it raises about its history, culture, and people; instead its answers remain complex and nuanced.

So, just how French is New Orleans? Because there lacks a connection between the official historic record linking France to New Orleans as well as the actual social, cultural, and linguistic composition of the city and its people. And despite the composite nature of language, heritage, and culture which include elements of Creole, Mexico, Central American, the city is the assumed home to a culture that has historically been associated with France.

So what is it about the city’s history, location, and culture that continue to link it to France while distancing it culturally and symbolically from the United States? The Story of French New Orleans explores the traces of French language, history, and artistic expression that have been present in New Orleans over the last three hundred years. This volume focuses on the French, Spanish, and American colonial periods in order to understand the imprint that French socio-cultural systems left on New Orleans’ culture during and after French colonial rule.

The migration of Acadians to New Orleans at the time the city became a Spanish dominion and the arrival of Haitian refugees at the time when the city became an American territory reinforced its Francophone identity. However, in the process of establishing itself as an urban space in the antebellum south, the culture of New Orleans became a liability for New Orleans elite after the Louisiana Purchase.

Map of the French Quarter

In a chapter devoted to the French Quarter, Guenin-Lelle offers a new interpretation of its design and the ways it extends the imagined connections between New Orleans and France to the spatial realm. Interestingly, the vast majority of the buildings in the French Quarter were built after New Orleans became a part of the United States, tourists nonetheless continue to flock there to experience “the least American place in America” and “America’s most foreign city,” lured by its supposedly French architecture and its urban design.

Dianne Guenin-Lelle
New Orleans and the Caribbean share numerous historical, cultural and linguistic connections. The author analyzes these connections and the shared process of creolization occurring in New Orleans and throughout the Caribbean Basin. It contends that “French” New Orleans might be understood as a trope for the unscripted “original” Creole social and cultural elements found in New Orleans. Since being Creole came to connote African descent, the study suggests that an association with France in the minds of whites allowed for a less racially-bound and contested social order within the United States.

Ultimately, Guenin-Lelle argues that New Orleans exists as a Creole and North American hybrid that transcends its historical elements that emerges with unique form of self-expression including the creation of zydeco music and the march of Mardi Gras Indians.

Guenin-Lelle who has a PhD in French literature from Louisiana State University also offers readers analysis of New Orleans’ earliest works of literature in the French language.