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In the Name of Language: France Unveils Historic Cultural Center Devoted to French.
PARIS — A new cultural haven, dedicated solely to the origins and evolution of the French language, is making its debut in France. The International French Language Centre has taken up residence within the meticulously restored walls of the Villers-Cotterêts Castle in Aisne. This former hunting retreat of King François I, which had witnessed various roles, including that of a workhouse, military hospital, and retirement home until 2014, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past three years.
Director of the International French Language Centre, Paul Rondin, emphasized the broad appeal of this cultural enclave, saying, “It’s not just for those who speak French, it’s also for those who are learning it or simply for those who adore French culture in all its facets, including the melodious sounds of the language.”
A Monumental Revival.
In the quaint town of Villers-Cotterêts, home to approximately 10,000 residents and situated just 80 kilometers from the heart of Paris, then-candidate Emmanuel Macron stumbled upon the decrepit state of this Renaissance castle in 2017. Following his election, he entrusted the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) with the task of transforming it into a “castle of the Francophonie.” An impressive investment exceeding 210 million euros was made, marking President Macron’s second-largest cultural endeavor after the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris.
The significance of this initiative extends beyond its cultural and historical roots. It bears political weight in a region scarred by deindustrialization, unemployment, and a surge in far-right political support.
What Awaits Visitors at the Language Center.
As visitors enter the castle, a place hitherto off-limits to the public, they will encounter a “lexical sky” in the Court of the Jeu de paume, displaying words like “onomatopoeia,” “weird,” “spoiler,” and “nonsense.” These suspended words were selected in collaboration with the local community.
The King’s staircase, adorned with its splendid, coffered ceiling and bearing witness to an original interior decoration relic, along with the chapel and the Queen’s staircase, leads to a permanent exhibition that traces the global dissemination of the French language, its standardization processes, and the myriad ways in which it is employed. A cubic “magic library” awaits, housing a treasure trove of books, and visitors can receive personalized reading recommendations from an artificial intelligence system. Throughout the center, screens showcase actors performing linguistic acrobatics and offer interactive spelling tests.
Paul Rondin, the center’s director, emphasizes, “It’s not a museum, and that means we have a responsibility here at the Cité internationale to show the language in the process of being transformed, which is also why there will be researchers and artists here.” He further adds, “I hope that we will be able to evolve, to make a certain number of things evolve on the question of gender, for example. But that also applies to the acceptance of new words in the French language. I’ll say it again: we’re not defending language, we’re welcoming it.”
To breathe life into the center, a dynamic array of exhibitions, performances, artist and research residencies have been planned. An ambitious goal of attracting 200,000 visitors annually has been set, with assurances from Marie Lavandier, the director of the National Monuments Centre, that every effort is being made to ensure residents can access the center without financial barriers.