About Berthe Mouchette


The Berthe Mouchette Competition : A memorable experience
By Alexandra Balafrej (an extract)...   Read French version


Every year for over a century, millions of young Victorians have been bringing French poetry to life in the antipodes of France. The Berthe Mouchette Competition is a unique and memorable experience for the candidates and it reinforces the vitality of French in Australia.

In Victoria, the Berthe Mouchette Competition plays a key role in the promotion of Francophone language and culture, which is the flagship mission of the Alliance Française. Every year between May and November it is experienced by more than 16,000 candidates; by working alongside primary and secondary schools in Victoria which offer French, it aims to reward the best students of the subject.

A French examiner comes to the school and candidates from years 3 to 10, aged from around 8 to 16, recite before them a poem proposed by the Alliance. Students of years 11 and 12, about to sit the VCE, are evaluated in two parts: a general conversation, and then one of two choices, either the recitation of a poem or the discussion of a theme studied in class. The older students are also able to sit a 2-hour written component, which tests comprehension and expression.

Hundreds of poems, learnt for over one hundred years

A certificate and French books are at stake for millions of candidates, and there is even a trip to New Caledonia for the winners of the Prix La Pérouse in years 11 and 12.
The annual exams with prizes of the Alliance Française in Melbourne have been around for more than one hundred years. In 1894, four years after the creation of the Alliance Française by Berthe Mouchette, there were 35 candidates enrolled. The annual report of the Alliance Française in 1893-1894 emphasises the serious nature of the exams, and their aim to “propagate the practical study of French”.
The stage was set, and from then on, the competition continued to develop. The number of candidates only diminished in the years 1972-74 when the nuclear tests in the Pacific temporarily tarnished relations between France and Australia.
Enrolments in the Alliance Française exams dropped beneath 8,000 candidates in 1974. During the last French nuclear tests in the south Pacific in 1995-96, the disaffection with the competition was less notable, although the students of years 11 and 12 often chose “the tests” as their discussion topic with the examiners.
 

An intense moment


Today, as yesterday, the Berthe Mouchette Competition doesn’t take place like an ordinary school exam. “We need about two months of preparation,” Philippe Vallantin, Head of French Bialik College explains. The poems selected by the Alliance are recorded in a studio then sent on CD to all participating schools. The learning and the practicing can then begin. “There is commentary and strophe-by-strophe explanations,” says Nicole Smith Head of French PLC. “Each student receives an audio recording so they can practice alone, and they learn the poem in progressive stages. Once it is memorised and well pronounced, we work on tone and expression. Sometimes we even sing it!” Taking part in the competition provokes a great deal of nervousness. As Smith goes on to say, “having a French visitor at the school and the stage fright of an oral presentation really puts the students’ confidence to the test.”

For the examiner, it is often moving to hear the verses of Prévert, Verlaine or Michaux so far from France and in the mouths of these young Australians. “They are often very well rehearsed, but despite our good intentions and our best consideration, some young candidates are very nervous”, tells one examiner. This can create some comical situations: a candidate who says “au revoir” instead of “bonjour”, another who speeds through the recitation, or who forgets the title. But even if the verses sometimes get mixed up, the students’ efforts with pronunciation, intonation and interpretation are always impressive. Some dress up or act out the poem like a theatre role, making up scenes for the sonnets of Rimbaud or Lamartine. They gain confidence and assert their connection with the language.For many, the competition encourages them to pursue their studies in French. The grand final of the Berthe Mouchette Competition brings together about 500 candidates and for all the laureates and their families, the prize giving ceremony at Glen Eira Town Hall is an unforgettable moment. If we can still meet today those in Victoria who remember their first Alliance Française poem from thirty years ago, it is because, in the words of Voltaire, “that which touches the heart engraves itself on the memory”.

But who is Berthe Mouchette?


The Berthe Mouchette Competition takes its name from the first president of the Alliance Française in Melbourne. But who is hiding behind this name from a past era? John Drury, a biographer who has done a great amount of research on Berthe Mouchette, says she was “a unique woman with a discrete but audacious nature for her time, and an artist in love with the French language and culture.”
She was a French artist who arrived in Melbourne in 1882 with her husband and her sister, a French professor named Mademoiselle Lion. Berthe was a successful portrait painter and professor of art, and with her sister she bought a school for young girls in St Kilda in 1886. It was there that the first meetings of the Alliance Française were held in 1890.
The sisters, Lion and Mounchette, formed the “Women’s Committee” of the Alliance Française, which brought together women of Melbourne’s bourgeoisie. Good teachers but poor managers, the two women had to close down their school, but by 1892 when Berthe Mouchette, a widow for eight years, moved with her sister from Melbourne to Adelaide, the Alliance Française of Victoria had become a well-established institution. She stayed In Adelaide for thirty years and enjoyed a prosperous period in which she exhibited her works and held an excellent reputation amongst Adelaide’s high society.
For the first years of the twentieth century, the two sisters were in India, taking an interest in theosophy and walking in the Himalayas! But after the death of her sister in Adelaide in 1922, Berthe Mouchette returned to France, where she died in 1928 in Normandy.
Today, we can see one of Berthe Mouchette’s paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria.


You may also like...

Term 1 courses

Term 1 courses

9-week courses for everyone
In St Kilda & in the CBD
Start Mon 29 Jan 2018

Grammar clinic: past tenses

Grammar clinic: past tenses

Thu 18 Jan | in St Kilda
Level A2 | 10am to 4pm
Lunch included!

Grammar clinic: subjonctif

Grammar clinic: subjonctif

Thu 18 Jan | in St Kilda
Level B1 | 10am to 4pm
Lunch included!

Jazzy Jeudi - Leïla Négrau

Jazzy Jeudi - Leïla Négrau

The first Jazzy Jeudi of 2018 with singer-percussionist Leïla Négrau from the Réunion Island. Thu 1st Feb 2018

Dhumbadha Munga

Dhumbadha Munga

Talking Knowledge
7 February - 8 March 2018

2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival

2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival

Save the date - 28 February to 27 March 2018


Thanks for sharing! / Merci pour le partage!

Instagram

St Kilda branch:
51 Grey Street, ST KILDA
VICTORIA 3182 AUSTRALIA
Tel : 03 9525 3463
Fax : 03 9525 5064
E-mail: info@afmelbourne.com.au

Postal Address:
PO Box 2042,
ST KILDA WEST, VICTORIA 3182
AUSTRALIA

St Kilda branch opening hours:
Mon - Fri: 9am to 7pm (switchboard/reception: 9.30am to 6.30pm)
Sat: 9am to 6pm (switchboard/reception: 9am to 5.30pm).
Please note the Sk Kilda branch will be closed on Saturday 20/01.

How to find us:
Trams: 16, 96, Fitzroy Street
3, 5, 64, 67 St Kilda Junction (3, 64, 67 Alma Road)
Car park available
Wheelchair access

City branch:
Level 13, 55 Swanston St, MELBOURNE
VICTORIA 3000 AUSTRALIA
Tel : 03 9525 3463
Fax : 03 9525 5064
E-mail: info@afmelbourne.com.au

City branch opening hours:
Mon - Thurs 9am to 1pm & 2pm to 6.30pm
Fri - Sat: 9am to 12pm & 1pm to 6pm
Please note the CBD branch will be closed on Saturday 20/01 and 27/01.

How to find us:
Trams: 1, 3, 3a, 5, 6, 8, 11, 16, 42, 48, 64, 67, 72, 109
& 112 running down Swanston St (stop: Collins St/Swanston St)
Trains: Flinders St Station is 1 block away