Résidence de France, 12 January 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, chers amis,
Then we are pleased to have with us, in alphabetical order,
1 – Helen Alexander, President of the Confederation of British Industry
2 – Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber
3 - Barrister and MP Sir Stuart Bell, former chairman of France/UK Friendship group at the Commons.
4 - LSE Director Sir Howard Davies
5 - The MP Dominic Grieve QC, Shadow Minister for Justice
6 – L’Oréal UK Vice-Chairman Lady Jay CBE
7 - Victoria and Albert Museum Director Mark Jones
8 - Barbican Centre Managing Director Sir Nicholas Kenyon CBE
9 - Chairman of the British Library Board Sir Colin Lucas, former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University
10 - Publisher, Mr Christopher MacLehose
11 – British Airport Authorities Chief Executive Colin Matthews
12 - Nuffield Foundation Chairman Baroness Onora O’Neill
13 - EDF Energy Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz
14 - Writer and Duff Cooper prize-winner Graham Robb who rode 10 000 kms on his bicycle and wrote a splendid “Discovery of France”
15 - and the Vice-Provost of University College London, Professor Michael Worton.
I want to thank them all for agreeing to sit on the honorary committee in this centenary year. They are all in their various ways constantly making an invaluable, active contribution to the Franco-British cultural, political, academic and economic relationship and above all understanding of French thought and culture in this country.
We’re used to seeing the history between our two countries in terms of a succession of rivalries, clashes, or power struggles. Indeed 650 years of war between 1100 and 1900, but on the cultural side, we must say that this is turned on its head: as our longstanding ties are based on mutual admiration and attraction. Each side praises the other’s qualities to the hilt: indeed, didn’t the great Churchill himself talk about the extremely “orderly British” and extremely “cultivated French”? And is it not in the UK and not in a French province that there is a Foundation dedicated to the study of Voltaire and the Enlightenment?
The foundations of France’s cultural presence in the UK are based precisely on this recognition of the other’s intellectual quality: since at the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s thanks to the British that London saw the step-by-step establishment of the French Institute. We owe the French Institute to the British.
It all started just after the Entente Cordiale with the creation at Marble Arch House of the Université des Lettres Françaises in 1910 by a determined and enterprising young visionary, Marie d’Orliac – I’m so pleased her grandson Cyril Kinski is with us this evening. A committee chaired by Lord Asquith was formed, made up of influential figures with an interest in France’s language and literature. The Institute is bond with our common history. In 1915, in the wake of the influx of orphans from the Great War, a school was attached to it, with 250 pupils attending in 1919. In February 1921, when Lille University proposed the Institute’s attachment to that venerable institution, it was again thanks to support, this time from the British government, that 7 buildings were made available to the Institute in Cromwell Gardens.
From the start, in the film world too, the Franco-British connection was highlighted in 1939 with the selection of Marcel L’Herbier’s film the “Entente Cordiale”, an adaptation of André Maurois’ book on the life of Edward VII.
This unwavering support became essential during the Second World War. Despite the ill winds blowing in 1939, the year saw French President Albert Lebrun and the then Princess Royal open the present magnificent art deco building, which was to become a haven for the Free French and combatant forces. Margaret Storm Jameson, an author committed to helping the refugees, movingly made the point that there had to be a “community of nerves and intelligence” between the two countries, saying that the British had left enough of their own in French soil to claim a community of flesh and blood. The Institute became the production centre for the Free French publications and a place for intellectuals to gather. An officer cadet school was opened, and in October 1940 in the middle of the Blitz a score of French teenagers took their baccalauréat exam.
It’s this symbolic history, where your partner is more important than you, where there’s an intrinsic mix of our two countries’ government support and private patronage, that the Centenary is going to relate through several conferences. It will include on the history of teaching French as a foreign language, the presence of the French in London (300 000) and an intriguing one on “France in the British Mind 1910-2010”. There’s also to be a special event celebrating the anniversary of General de Gaulle’s 18 June appeal.
Today, the Institut français du Royaume-Uni is an extremely active educational and cultural centre. The number of French language students, currently around 7,000, is continually rising. 50,000 people enjoy 900 films a year at the Ciné Lumière, take part in its conferences, or visit its astounding library of 60,000 books and documents, the largest stock anywhere outside France.
But its main feature is still its intense web of links with all those actively involved in British cultural, academic, economic and social life: the French Institute maintains hundreds of partnerships with schools, universities, festivals, cultural professionals and theatres, for example, last year with the “Paris Calling” performing arts season, the Institute spearheads also European cultural projects. Finally, it gets support from dozens of sponsors, mostly French companies in London, whose representatives are with us this evening, and to whom I want to express our warmest thanks. As we owe them the renovation just one year ago of the Ciné Lumière inaugurated by Catherine Deneuve. Many of you attended this event.
And to pursue this modernization effort, look to the future and give the Institute a new tool capable of attracting the young generations, the Centenary’s flagship project will be the launch, in May, of a digital platform giving on-line access to cultural and educational resources: ‘your digital Institute’ with a digital library.
Developed by its director, Laurence Auer – I should call her “the second woman in the Institute’s history” after the founder Marie d’Orliac – The project of digital library has obtained the support of the French Foreign Ministry and several private sponsors and donors. Let me take this opportunity to express our gratitude to them and the Friends of the French Institute Trust.
Finally, this Centenary will be celebrated beyond the Institute’s walls. London and other towns will see concerts and productions by young French artists. Cinema will be at the forefront with a programme of “100 years of cinema”. But we’ve also got a festival of Francophony in March and then the June Music Day Festival taking place throughout South Kensington.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Relations between our two countries are underpinned by those between French and British peoples. I want lots of people to take part in these festivities. The programme is certainly imaginative and exciting. Our Institute must promote exchanges and cooperation between our two countries and pursue its mission of encouraging cultural diversity, contemporary creation and the discovery of new talent.
I declare the celebrations of the Institute’s Centenary year open!