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New York's Little France blossoms

Some French who have made Carroll Gardens home tout its benefits over their native land.

NEW YORK — Three years ago, after hearing about Brooklyn’s burgeoning Little France through word of mouth, Jean-Jacques Bernat relocated his bistro there. He said his new neighbors reacted to his arrival by revamping their own businesses — adding a fresh coat of paint here, replacing a crumbling light fixture there.

“We stimulated the neighborhood,” said Bernat, who described his Provence en Boite as a “neighborhood institution” thanks to a steady flow of customers seeking homemade croissants and crusty baguettes, comfort foods like crepes and quiches, or just to exchange a few words in their native tongue.

In this section of Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, expatriates mingle easily with celebrities and non-French clients who live near Smith Street, the area’s central artery known locally as “Restaurant Row.” Before he died, Heath Ledger lived nearby and was a regular, said Bernat, whose bistro is part of an expanding list of businesses with names like Bar Tabac, Robin des Bois and Cafe Luluc.

“It’s rare in the U.S. to have a French neighborhood,” said the 52-year-old pastry chef. His display case, filled with fruit tarts, colorful macaroons and buches de Noel, a traditional Christmas cake, rivals that of any Parisian bakery.

Drawn to the village-like feel, comparatively affordable real estate and a 2-year-old, French-English dual-language program at an area elementary school, French families and businesses have flocked here in the last decade. A sizeable concentration of the more than 20,000 French people who call Brooklyn home have staked their claim to the unmistakably gentrified former working-class Italian neighborhood.

The annual July 14 Bastille Day celebration attracts sponsors like the spirits supplier Ricard and the bottled water brand Evian, said Bernat. Local politicians, French embassy officials and thousands of revelers take part in the festivities.

“Brooklyn is a little France,” said Jacques Melendez, a middle-aged Frenchman of Spanish ancestry from Burgundy, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “I’ve never found anything else like it.”

A sign posted on a shop window advertised the services of a bilingual French tutor; another was from someone seeking French lessons. Similar interest seems to be driving demand for more language programs in area schools.