French International Lyceum of Vilnius: A Success Story Since Its Modest Beginnings

Today, the French International Lyceum of Vilnius, a member of the French education network abroad (AEFE), stands as the largest international school in Lithuania. With over 560 students ranging from 2 to 18 years old, of which 80% are Lithuanian, the school has come a long way since its inception. The history of the Lyceum traces back to the arrival of the first French diplomats in Lithuania, and from the very beginning, it sparked great interest among Lithuanian families. Caroline Berthonnet, the president of the first parents’ association, shares the origins of the school’s establishment.

French Impressions in Vilnius in 1991: Rationing Tickets, Barricades, and the Search for a School

The French diplomats arrived in Vilnius at a time when diplomatic relations were being restored. Jean-Charles Berthonnet was appointed as the First Counselor at the newly established Embassy of France in August 1991. His wife, C. Berthonnet, immediately embarked on the search for an educational institution for their children.

“We arrived in Vilnius on November 12, 1991, after a long three-day journey by car, accompanied by our 3 and 5-year-old children. We settled in an apartment near the Parliament, where access was still hindered by anti-tank concrete blocks. We were thrilled to have finally arrived in this country where history was being written, yet overwhelmed by a strange feeling of being far away from France (with no direct telephone connection without operator assistance). Acquiring essential supplies was also not an easy task; we had to obtain food rationing tickets. But we had to roll up our sleeves and rebuild the severed ties of the past fifty years,” Mr. Berthonnet recounts.

A French family was offered the opportunity to join the kindergarten of the 27th secondary school (now known as Gymnasium Jonas Basanavičius), where French language instruction was provided. The children joined a class led by the French-speaking teacher, Loreta Jankauskienė.

During the same year, C. Berthonnet contacted the AEFE to seek assistance in creating a French class. “During my trip to Paris, I realized that the AEFE relied on local parents’ associations to establish the groundwork for a school. When it seemed viable from Paris’ perspective, they would then become interested in the homologation process,” she explains.

Shortly after, other French families arrived in Vilnius. That same year, C. Berthonnet founded the Parents’ Association, registered it with the prefecture of Paris, and became its president. The initial association comprised four families, including Lithuanian diplomat Violeta Baltrušytė, whose support helped establish connections with Lithuanian institutions.

Laurent Déchaut with 3 students of Elementary school, 1992

The Creation of the “Little French School” and the Courageous Teachers

At the beginning of the new school year, the association sought to establish French classes. According to C. Berthonnet, the director of the 27th school, Vytautas Andrėkus, was a true Francophile and strongly supported the idea. The search for teachers began.

“We published an advertisement in the magazine ‘Télérama’ to find three teachers. We received up to 200 applications! In France, there was a great wave of sympathy towards the Baltic countries, which had just freed themselves from Soviet rule, especially towards Lithuania and its ‘Singing Revolution,'” recalls C. Berthonnet.

The hiring process was carried out through phone calls and mail. Eventually, three enthusiastic teachers arrived in Vilnius. Annie Beaufils worked in the kindergarten, Laurent Déchaut taught in an elementary school class, and Francienne d’Estaleinx taught in a secondary school class. According to the school’s founder, the biggest challenge in the beginning was financial stability. “There were very few French people. Their parents paid the teachers’ salaries and took care of accommodation and travel expenses,” C. Berthonnet recounts. Retired teachers also volunteered their time for a period.

In September 1992, a kindergarten class and two elementary school classes were opened. Ambassador Philippe de Suremain sent an official telegram to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informing them of the creation of the “little French school” in Vilnius.

At the time, the kindergarten had 15 children (13 Lithuanians and 2 French), the primary school had 5 students (2 Lithuanians and 3 French), and at the secondary level, there were 2 French students studying remotely with the help of teachers from CNED (National Center for Distance Education). Music, art, and sports classes were taught in collaboration with Lithuanian classes.

Since the School’s Beginnings – Lithuanian Support for French Education

From the start, Lithuanian families willingly chose the French school. Many of them were diplomats who had previously attended French educational institutions in other countries. “Our children learned Lithuanian within a few months of immersion, which reinforced my idea of ‘taking advantage’ of the presence of French children to allow Lithuanian children to learn our ‘beautiful language’ as well. I was very impressed by the determination of many Lithuanian parents to enroll their children in the French school, especially considering that some children already spoke Russian or even Polish in addition to Lithuanian. The allure of our educational system, as well as the great interest Lithuanians have in French culture, played a significant role,” explains C. Berthonnet.

Pradinės mokyklos klasė 1993-1994 m.

From a Few Students to the Largest International School

According to C. Berthonnet, the current success of the Lyceum has exceeded the founders’ expectations, although they initially envisioned an international school for children of all nationalities and aimed to create an institution that met the requirements of the French educational system.

In 1994, the first complete class of CP (Year 1) was opened with 15 students. Before leaving for another diplomatic mission, C. Berthonnet even had the opportunity to attend the inauguration of this class. She explains that she wanted to ensure that the school would continue even after their departure, so she actively sought financial support.

Later, the role of association president was taken over by Florence Jourdain, the ambassador’s secretary, who led the school with determination towards AEFE’s homologation. The number of students increased. From 2010, the school became known as the “French School Montesquieu of Vilnius” and operated in renovated premises in Antakalnis, 13 r. Šilo,

During their diplomatic service, the Berthonnet family also contributed to the creation of French classes in Kazakhstan, but it was the years spent in Vilnius that left the strongest impression. “I have always continued to follow the development of the International French Lyceum in Vilnius from a distance. Its current reputation fills us with joy, and I am very grateful to all those who have taken over and keep it alive through their daily commitment,” she declares.

The success story of the International French Lyceum is a testament to the vision and dedication of its founders, as well as the support and enthusiasm of the Lithuanian community. From its humble beginnings with just a few students, the school has grown into the largest international school in Lithuania, offering quality education in a multicultural and bilingual environment. Today, the International French Lyceum of Vilnius continues to thrive, providing an excellent education to a diverse student body. It has become a hub of cultural exchange and academic excellence, shaping the minds of future generations and fostering a deep appreciation for the French language and culture.

As we celebrate the remarkable journey of the International French Lyceum of Vilnius, we pay tribute to its founders, the dedicated teachers, the supportive families, and the vibrant Lithuanian community. Their collective efforts and unwavering commitment have created a lasting legacy of educational excellence and cultural enrichment.

Beginning of a School Year in Collège, 1994
End of School Year celebration, Nursery School
1st class of CP, school year 1994