We work all year round to bring the best of France and expose the people of Haifa to events that make their life more interesting and meaningful.”In the French Carmel district of Haifa, below a French flag blowing in the wind, lies the Gaston Defferre French Cultural Center. The center brings French culture and initiatives to Haifa and exposes the city and its citizens to the finer aspects of life, as only the French truly know how to do.
While Israel’s relationship with France has been (to say the least) a stormy, if passionate, affair over the past 40 years, the City of Haifa has been nursing its own strong relationship with the French and all their levels of government over this period.
Perhaps no tie is stronger than that with Gaston Defferre, the ultimate power broker of post-war French Politics. A long standing member of the National Assembly (1945-1958, 1962-1986) and member of the Senate between 1959-1962, Defferre is perhaps best known as Marseilles’ legendary mayor, the city he served for over a quarter of a century, including 33 consecutive years between 1953 and 1986, the year of his death.
Haifa and Marseilles lie at opposing ends of the Mediterranean yet share many common themes; similar climates, port cities with mixed populations, celebrated football traditions and vibrant cultural scenes.
Mr. Yaakov Bazak is an encyclopedia on the ins and outs of French politics and a key figure in the French Center’s history. Bazak began public service as the city’s spokesperson in 1965 and since then he has been the advisor to 7 of Haifa’s mayors on French Affairs. After the 67’ embargo by DeGaulle, there was de facto no communication between the two countries, but already in 1974 Bazak was sent to Marseilles to “sniff out a chance for normalization.” He met with then Mayor Defferre and what ensued was a friendship that was to last a lifetime. This relationship also bred a rich collaboration between both cities that is still going strong today in which the French Center plays a significant role.
“Mayor Yahav takes our special relationship with the French very seriously and is pleased with the increased involvement of French municipalities in Haifa’s growth.”
Haifa’s high-tech scene is undoubtedly also appealing to the French and the Municipality is constantly seeking to promote opportunities that strengthen these ties. Both the Technion and Rambam have developed joint initiatives with their French counterparts while the Les Ecoles de l’Espoire network has funded French classes for underprivileged kids in Haifa.
Inaugurated in 1994, the Center is a slice of France in Haifa. French is taught in the classrooms, posters of Amelie adorn the walls, movie festivals are held at the Krieger Hall and student exchanges are organized.
Yoni Carmon is a Parisian who immigrated to Israel at the age of 18. A cinematographer by trade he has been managing the Center for the past 10 years.
Carmon represents contemporary French culture and not so much the nostalgic France of Alain Delon and Louis De Funes. Yet, he is also aware that the large Francophile community in Haifa wants a bit of nostalgia. “My role is to find a balance. Of course, it’s important to bring what’s happening today in France….but we are also considerate of the past. I think we are doing ok in that respect,” he says smilingly.
The French Center is part of the network of French Institutes operated by the French Foreign Office worldwide. This started in post-war France as a means to gain a foothold in international politics, expand their spheres of influence. Similar to the Goethe Institute and the Cervantes Institute operated by Germany and Spain respectively, these institutes rely on the export of culture to cultivate good will and cultural collaborations.
The Center works closely with the Municipality and they complement each other. “We work all year round to bring the best of France and expose the people of Haifa to events that make their life more interesting and meaningful.”
The film festival is a great example of Haifa’s love of French film as it is often selected as the site for world premieres. French Food Week is another example of the on-going affair. “We brought 8 renowned chefs to collaborate with local chefs in different local restaurants and promoted the event. It was a huge success and got rave reviews.”
A strong emphasis is also placed on co-existence and the Center collaborates with the Municipality on a number of joint initiatives that revolve around joint learning and culture.
Regardless of the French Center’s activities, Haifa has a special French touch, whether it’s the beautiful Paris Square named in honor of the French engineers who built the city’s funicular or the French Alliance School, one of the city’s best. Perhaps it is this connection that makes Haifa a bit more European in nature vis-a-vis the rest of the country.