Alliance Francaise undergoes a renaissance

Quelle turnaround! The Alliance Francaise has undergone a renaissance, upping the fun quotient and balancing the books.

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Melissa Do, left, and Christina Selander Bouzouina are working to increase the appeal of the Alliance Francaise for young francophiles and French speakers.

Photo: Tom Wallace , Star Tribune

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A few years back, you’d have been hard pressed to find a member of the Alliance Francaise of Minneapolis and St. Paul who didn’t have cheveux blancs (white hair). That was before the Jeunes Cadres Dynamiques came along.

While the name suggests a band of chic Parisian superheroes, the Cadres is actually a young professionals network attached to the Alliance, the local chapter of an international organization that celebrates French-speaking cultures and teaches the language.

With social events ranging from a soft opening at Chez Arnaud, a new French bakery in St. Paul, to an ugly-sweater party at the trendy Nicollet Avenue restaurant Icehouse, the group has attracted several dozen new members. It’s one example of a vigorous retooling that has changed the 140-year-old Alliance from an out-of-touch chapter with money troubles into a financially healthy nonprofit with modern relevance and broader, more diverse reach.

The Cadres “has really helped me to get integrated into the city, to see that it’s not just flyover country,” said Pierre Genette, a 29-year-old procurement consultant for Accenture, who moved to Minnesota from Miami four months ago. Genette, who grew up in a French-speaking part of Belgium, said he values the group at least as much for its professional connections as its social ones.

“I just feel more comfortable talking with a doctor who can speak French,” he said.

Melissa Do, who promotes and coordinates the events, stressed that they are for francophiles, not just francophones.

“You don’t have to be a fluent French speaker, just have an interest,” she said. Do, 24, is an artist and office supervisor for Hilton who grew up in Minneapolis and learned the language in school.

Christina Selander Bouzouina, 35, the Alliance’s director since 2007, has been instrumental in ushering in the updates because “we needed some energizing,” she said.

There’s also a teen group, begun on behalf of the daughter of a member who moved his family here from Togo, a former French colony.

In an effort to be more global, the Alliance has been connecting with people from French-speaking countries worldwide, including Africa, Southeast Asia and Canada. Board member Jacqueline Regis, a Hennepin County judge, is a native of Haiti.

While expanding its reach, the Alliance has also been building its coffers. Franck Marret, an IBM analyst who recently served as board president, helped accomplish the renaissance by running it “more like a business than a church club,” he said.

He recruited influential board members from the business community, as well as deeper-pocketed funders from “the Wayzata crowd,” including Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly and his wife, Nathalie, who both grew up in France. Starting with “a lot of Scotch tape and thumbtacks” and building from there, he said, the organization has now been in the black for the past five years, and has an annual budget of $562,000. Membership is 1,150, up from 750 in 2007.

“It used to be that the Alliance was very strictly academic, and didn’t want to be associated with the word ‘fun,’ ” Marret said. “We’ve changed. I used to hear all the time that it was the best-kept secret in town. I hate that. We want everyone to know about us.”

 

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

  • Mais Oui marrakesh!

    What: Gala benefit for the Alliance Francaise.

    When: 6-11 p.m. Fri.

    Where: Radisson Blu Hotel, 2100 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington.

    Tickets: $125. 612-332-0436 or afmsp.org.

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