Sacre Bleu, The French Are Here
It's well-known that our region has a vibrant Latino community in southwest Detroit, and a large Middle Eastern population in Dearborn. But I bet you didn't know that Metro Detroit also boasts a sizable French community, mostly centered around the Bloomfield-West Bloomfield-Bloomfield Hills area in Oakland County.
According to the 2000 Oakland County census, 10 percent of people living in the county were foreign-born - which is twice the percentage of Michigan overall. Which partially explains how Oakland County boasts 66 French-owned companies (as tracked by the county's Planning and Economic Development office). That's nine percent of the 721 foreign-parent firms operating in the county. And in those companies, nearly 4,500 people are employed.
Most of Metro Detroit's French population works in connection with the auto industry, and stays, on average, for two or three years to serve a contract. But not always. There are those who embrace the Mitten as home, which has inspired several French-centered organizations and even a school.
Our region is home to numerous big name French companies --Louis Vuitton, Peugeot Motors of America, The Body Shop, Puma-- as well as some you may not have heard of. Sanofi-Aventis U.S.
, an international pharmaceutical company, is headquartered in Rochester Hills. Dassault Systemes
provides computer software development and programming, as well as architectural and engineering services. They have offices in Troy, Auburn Hills, and Northville. Capgemini America also provides computer services out of Southfield. Ligne Roset
Michigan is a French furniture company, with a storefront in downtown Birmingham.
The French-American Chamber of Commerce's Michigan chapter
also points to a variety of industries, some automotive-related, others as general as real estate and education. Robert Hudson, the chapter's president and a member of the law firm Butzel Long, explains that even with the difficult economy, Detroit is still important to international business. "This is still the center of the auto industry in the world. A lot of these companies are here because of that," Hudson says.
Hudson is not French, but his stepmother was, and he does speak the language. He hears mostly good things about the French community's experience in the Detroit area. "They just say they like the American way of life, less frantic than Paris, and they find that the whole interaction of the schools and their personal life and their business is good -- there's a good balance," he says. "They find that living here is easy and pleasant."
He attributes that to amenities like the French School of Detroit, the ability to easily access the area, and the activities of local cultural groups, including several chapters of Alliance Francaise social group. If there is a difficulty, it usually entails a trailing spouse without a work visa. Acclimating to the community and finding a way to spend time can be a challenge for those who are used to pursuing a career. The French School of Detroit
is geared around serving transplants, and provides families with both academic and social opportunities. Pascale Corduries, who came to Michigan from France 13 years ago to take over as director of the French School of Detroit, estimates that 80 percent of her students are children of automotive industry employees who are in the metro area for two or three years. They often return to France after their stay.
The school works in partnership with Birmingham public schools so children are educated in both French and English, giving them the opportunity to learn about American culture and language while keeping up with their native French studies. "Our goal is to help the families arriving in Michigan to settle here and to continue having their kids learning in French," she says.
Jean-Luc Vay has lived in West Bloomfield for three years with his wife and two young children. He works remotely for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California doing computer simulations while his wife completes a fellowship at the Karmanos Cancer Center in gynecological oncology. Most of the family's connections to other members of the French community come through the French School or Alliance Francaise
. They've even found a good stateside place from which to order baguettes in bulk.
Vay says that although the Detroit region gets bad press, he enjoys living in West Bloomfield. "It's a great area if you have a family, because it's not too dense," he says. "You have all these little lakes around, so you don't have to drive far to be in nature, but it's still close to a big city."
Francoise Guellec works as a bookkeeper at the French Institute in Bloomfield Hills, a chapter of Alliance Francaise organization, and has been in the area for 12 years. She and her fellow employees are originally from France, though most of their clients are American. "The aim of our institute is spread the French language and also the culture," she says.
And while that cultural link is provided by French expats, you don't have to be French to love their way of life. Jim Lark owns and serves as maitre d' of The Lark
in West Bloomfield, a high-end French restaurant that has been consistently recognized with awards. It is also a favorite of ex-pats.
Half French-Canadian, Lark opened the restaurant 29 years ago as a third career and a way to pursue his passion. He explains that he and his wife, Mary, decided to create a restaurant they would most like to go to -- something you might find in southern France. "We use only French techniques," he says. "We do not broil steaks -- that would be a felony in France."
Kristin Lukowski covers development news for Metromode and Concentrate. She is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Her previous article was Wine County Is Just An Hour Away
.Send your questions and comments here.All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Cadillac Statue Donated by the French American Chamber of Commerce
Ligne Roset in Birmingham
Ligne Roset in Birmingham