French Enclave Thrives in Seoul

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French Enclave Thrives in Seoul

Around noon on Wednesday, pockets of people begin to appear in a street in Banpo-dong, a district in southern Seoul. They are there to pick up their children from the French school. They exchange greetings and chat as they wait for school to let out. Most seem to know each other well.

Although the street, which has been designated "French Street" by the district office, cannot be mistaken for a Parisian boulevard, it forms the spine of an area that some 450 French people call home. That's 45 percent of the French population in South Korea.

The reason that such a high proportion has chosen to live there is not only the relatively quiet, pleasant environment of the area; the biggest attraction is the school, which has become the main pillar of the French community in South Korea.

"The French community here is strong because we are few and there is only one school, which is very active," Sophie Henon, spokeswoman for the French embassy in Seoul, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

The school, founded in 1973, offers education for 3 year olds to high school students and currently has an enrollment of 325 students, 90 percent of them French. "Parents are very happy with the French school, which is conducted 100 percent in French style," Ms. Henon said.

The school may be the foundation of the French community in Seoul, but two associations in Korea also lend the community coherence. Although they differ in their precise functions, they help the French make contact with each other and settle in Korea by passing on information.

Genevieve May, the president of one of the organizations, Le Cercle Franco-Coreen, says that this group is "lady-oriented," mainly organizing daytime activities. The non-profit, 190-member association, founded in 1974, offers tours around Korea and promotes friendship among the French community and Koreans who speak French. Every week, members take turns serving tea and coffee at their homes, and every month, the association hosts a "morning coffee" for newcomers. It is also involved in fund-raising for charities.

The other organization, the Association des Francophones de Coree, offers French speakers the opportunity to socialize by organizing parties, outings and carnivals. The gregarious Salima Brombeck seems well-suited to the job of president - mention her name to members of the French community and you're likely to get a friendly response.

Like Le Cercle Franco-Coreen, AFC does not limit its members to French. Some 18 nationalities, including Koreans and people from European and African countries, are on its roster. First organized 15 years ago, the association offers two welcoming parties a year and a carnival in February.

"I joined the AFC just one week after I arrived in Korea two and half years ago. It suits me because I like parties and meeting new people," said Alexandra Dumas, a foreign legal consultant from Belgium.

Tim Witcher, the bureau chief of Agence France-Presse in Seoul, says that these associations help newcomers because they allow people to pass down their knowledge of Korea.

"My wife was a bit nervous about coming to Korea at first, but as most French people live near the school, we are really close and you share a lot of knowledge about Korea," Mr. Witcher said. "Now my wife is really comfortable living in Korea."

AFC publishes Le Petit Echotier every two months, providing news on the French expatriate community. Non-members can buy the magazine for 7,000 won ($5.35). For members, the magazine is included in the association's 35,000 won annual membership fee.

In recent years, the French population in South Korea has increased steadily, from 796 French nationals in 1997 to 1,402 last year. With more than 150 French companies in South Korea, it is likely that the community will continue to expand in numbers. Ms. Brombeck said she expects membership in these associations to mirror the increase.

To serve the close-knit French community in Seoul and Koreans' interest in France, officials at the district set up the South Korea-France Information Center in May 1999. With the cooperation of the French embassy, the center provides information on the history and culture of France and Korea.

"A lot of French people complained that despite living in Korea, when they go back they feel that they gained little from living here," said one official. "We created the center to promote exchange between French people and Koreans."

Acknowledging that the neighborhood lacks a "French feel," an official said that the authority plans to differentiate the area from adjacent neighborhoods by putting up road signs in French and Korean.

"We plan to make changes this year so that when people enter the neighborhood, they feel that they are on a French street," the official said.

There are currently only a few shops in the area that serve the French community. According to "Paris Croissant," which bakes its goods with French flour and offers a selection of French-style breads and cakes, 70 percent of its customers are French.

"Le Ciel," a hair salon owned by a Korean, is also popular among the French; the shop's hair dresser was educated in France.

Changes are taking place in the area to meet the rising demand for homes and services. New apartment buildings in the area already have French names and others are being designed and constructed to suit French tastes.

Two restaurants in Itaewon try to satisfy the famed French passion for gourmet food. "Le Churchills," which has a French chef and buys imported ingredients, offers dishes popular in France. And a recent addition, "Le Saint Ex" - named after the famed French author Antoine de St. Exupery - has a French proprietor and boasts a Korean chef educated in France.

Lycee Francais de Seoul 02-535-1158

South Korea - France Information Center 02- 570-6767

Association des Francophones de Coree (AFC) 02-3476-0348

AFC President, Salima Brombeck 011-730-0348

Le Cercle de Franco - Coreen

President Genevieve May 02-591-3049

President Pauline Kim 02-534-1018


Le Churchills, Itaewon 02-795-7066

Le Saint Ex , Itaewon 02-795-2465

by Lee Soo-jeong

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