When I moved to Fargo in the Fall of 2017, I never thought I would one day meet the Consul General of my home country, France. Yet, not only did I get to meet Guillaume Lacroix, but with an incredible team of local collaborators, I was offered to plan and lead his visit to ensure the best possible experience at the time. Guillaume Lacroix was designated as the Consul General of France for the Midwest in August 2017. In his home at the time, Chicago, he met with John Machacek of the Greater Fargo Moorhead EDC, who intrigued him with Fargo fun facts and opportunities. He then took a few days in early December to come to Fargo to meet the ND Trade Office, Language and International program leads at our local schools, leaders at businesses (Fargo Jet Center, Microsoft, Amity Technology, Appareo) and elected representatives. We also hosted a happy hour at Front Street Taproom for French speakers in the community, which turned out to be an overwhelming success, with over 25 attendees. Finally, he was invited to the Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event on December 6th where he had the opportunity to discover many local businesses.
Consul General of France in the Midwest, what an exciting role! Can you share insights regarding your responsibilities and specifically, tell us about your mission in the mid-west?
As the official French representative in the Midwest, I oversee the French citizens. My office in Chicago provides them with various services: IDs, travel documents, the organization of elections, emergency assistance. The French community is well integrated and contributes to the economic prosperity in the Midwest. I am also in charge of the dialogue between my country and the elected leaders, from the state level down to the city-level. This is a very exciting part of my job given the size of the territory and the political significance of the Midwestern region in the U.S. In my tenure, I have two main priorities: growing business opportunities and building bridges between the Midwest and France. My team and I encourage companies that are headquartered in the Midwest to invest in France. We encourage students to enroll in study abroad programs in France. We encourage the teaching of the French language through immersion, from pre-K to high school. We encourage science and technology partnerships between the Midwest and France. We encourage the diffusion of French culture and we encourage tourists to come to France.
So, a lot of encouragement – we can’t force anyone – I guess this is called soft power. Everything we do is only possible with teamwork: within the consulate, but also the network of honorary consuls in the Midwest, the French, francophone and francophile community. I like to say that we are one community, regardless of our citizenship, with one common cause: promoting exchanges between France and America and building the future solidarity between our two societies. It is a lot of work and a lot of travel, which means meeting a lot of people.
We have ambitious plans, but we are not starting from scratch. Two French companies already operate in North Dakota (Sodexo and Air Liquide). According to US and French figures, 600 jobs have been created by French companies in North Dakota. In Minnesota, 7,400 jobs have been created, which is significant. In 2017, US companies were at the origin of the highest number of new foreign investment projects in France. The same year, French companies were the largest source of job creation through Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S. Our efforts are paying off, but we must keep growing our exchanges, in particular in the education and research sectors.
What does the French Community represent in terms of the number of French Citizens in ND and in ND/MN jointly?
In North Dakota, there are 80 French citizens. It is a small number. The community is bigger in Minnesota with more than 2,000 people. This is the third largest French community in the Midwest after Illinois and Michigan. The community I am referring to are the people with French citizenship. If French ancestry would be the criteria, we would not be talking of thousands, but rather millions of people.
Can you tell us more about the French-American Alliance history?
France is America’s oldest ally. From Yorktown in 1781 to Omaha Beach in 1944, France and America have always stood together. We stand for the same values, championed by both American and French Revolutions. The French people will never forget the sacrifice of America’s Greatest Generation to restore our independence and liberty in 1944. A few weeks after taking up my duties of Consul General in 2017, I came to Minot, North Dakota, to pin the medal of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction, on Mr. Lynn Aas, a proud North Dakotan, for his service during World War II in France.
French, the language of love. Can you share some insights on the opportunities for bilingual individuals?
In our globalized economy, companies are looking for more employees who can navigate international dynamics. Exposure to foreign cultures, study abroad experiences and cross-cultural skills are elements that can make a big difference in the recruitment process. This is what I hear from companies. The French language is a door to the French-speaking world that, seen from Fargo, starts just around the corner at the Canadian border. One of the most interesting things I found out during my visit to Fargo was that a company like Microsoft is in need of French-speaking staff in order to work with the Canadian market. They say the trend is going to continue because more and more companies are working with the North-American market as a whole. Besides, speaking French gives you access to Europe (three EU countries are French-speaking), Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. French is the only other language besides English that is spoken on all the continents.
When did you first hear about Fargo?
Would you be surprised if I said that I first heard about Fargo watching the prodigious movie by the Coen brothers? I know this used to be controversial, but I can testify that the movie boosted your name recognition and popularity in France. Imagine what would have happened if the movie had ended up being called “Brainerd” as was originally planned! I am a fan of the movie and the three seasons of the series. I do not mind the accent, I do not mind the villains, I like the genius of the authors and the beauty of the landscapes. The film critic from Chicago Gene Siskel named “Fargo” movie of the year in 1996. At that time, I had no idea that one day I would serve in a diplomatic capacity in Chicago, be a partner of the Gene Siskel Film Theater and travel for business to Fargo.
Fargo in 5 words?
Quality of life
Food and beer scene.
What did you enjoy most during your short stay in Fargo?
People are so welcoming, from the Mayor, whom I met literally ten minutes after landing, to the waiter you see for lunch and meet again the same evening at a tap bar. If one day, at the end of my diplomatic career, I must relocate in the U.S., I would seriously consider Fargo.
What surprised you most about Fargo?
I did not expect to meet such a committed and strong Francophile community. They did not wait for a visit of a French consul – rightfully so – to build a network, have a weekly French conversation, cheer on the French national soccer team, host a French film festival and have strong French departments in the academic community. They came in force at the “Happy Hour with the French Consul” downtown. We decided to bring this energy to the next level and build more links between the FM area and France.
Why should Fargo residents consider visiting France?
France has a lot to offer. Not only Paris, the Louvre and the Versailles Palace, but also the beaches of Normandy, the hills of Champagne and Burgundy, my region. All are welcome: tourists, business people, students. If I fail to increase their numbers, I lose my job!
Key takeaways: What are the next steps following your trip?
The operational list is long: work with the business community to promote the recruitment of French-speakers, connect the innovation eco-system with the French scene in the Twin Cities in the context of the first French-American Innovation Minnesota event in April this year, work with French universities and firms so that they can accommodate more students from Fargo, promote the French film festival, give a concrete follow-up to the discussion with Fargo-based companies. This is going to require teamwork: the local operators, the Francophile community and myself have a common interest in seeing all these things implemented.
Finally, when are you coming back to Fargo?
I would come next week if I could, since I have not tried all the restaurants downtown. But, to be more realistic, before the summer. This is the most secure way to ensure appropriate follow up. I will come back with the Science and Technology attaché of the consulate who believes that the agricultural sector offers fantastic opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships.