French Consul General in Boston Defends Government's Warnings

If you warn people of a dangerous neighborhood, you run the risk of being called racist. That hasn't stopped the French government, as I reported in a recent article, from warning its citizens about some dangerous parts of American cities.

Fabien Fieschi, Consul General of France in Boston, recently paid a visit to Codman Academy Charter Public School, where he was asked why the French government had put their neighborhood, and others on a warning list. Wasn't this racist, the Consul General was asked, since these were predominantly minority neighborhoods? But Fieschi calmy but firmly explained why the warnings had been given. The Boston Globe reports that

...For weeks, Codman Academy Charter Public School had been awaiting the arrival of Fabien Fieschi, the consul general of France in Boston, whom they had tried to confront months earlier at his Back Bay office. They wanted an explanation for why his government has advised French tourists to avoid walking at night in their Dorchester neighborhood, as well as in Roxbury and Mattapan, because of concerns about crime. They hoped that once in their school, surrounded by the great mulligatawny that is Codman Square, he would accede to their wishes, see it was safe, and order the French Foreign Ministry to replace the warnings on its website with rosier language. So many of them were aghast when he balked at doing so.

“It should not be taken as offensive, not to you, because you’re not responsible for everything that happens in your neighborhood,” he told students and school staff Wednesday morning.

Fieschi, who lives in Cambridge and has served as consul general in Boston for about a year, told them it was his duty to protect French citizens, who he said rely on information from the Foreign Ministry to remain safe around the world. He explained that shootings are much rarer in France and that the preponderance of violent crimes in Boston occurs in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, justifying the warnings.

“French taxpayers pay taxes for us to provide them services and information, and providing information about security is part of our job,” he said. “If we just say that we won’t say anything about security, because it’s going to create problems for myself . . . we would fail to do our jobs and betray our citizens.”

He also cited a letter he sent the school after students came unannounced to his office in November.

“The solution probably does not consist of ‘shooting the messenger,’ ” he wrote, “but in making sure that neighborhoods that suffer more than others from crime benefit from improvements in their situation.”

He added: “Fortunately, this is not impossible,” noting that the city’s old Combat Zone no longer requires a “specific advisory.”

Thammy Pierre-Louis, 17, a senior at the school, where all juniors and seniors are required to study French, rolled her eyes as she listened to Fieschi. “I thought it was all a blow-off,” she said afterward. “I thought he was ignoring us, ignoring everything we said.”

Students called the Foreign Ministry’s travel warnings racist, noting they advised French nationals to avoid areas mainly where members of minority groups live. Fieschi rejected that notion, saying that if there were a spike in crime on Beacon Hill, he would immediately advise the ministry to warn citizens to be cautious there.

“I understand he wants to look out for his people, but to cast our neighborhood in a negative way is just wrong,” said Shantelle Stewart, 17, a senior. “It was hurtful what he said.”

While happy that the consul general accepted their invitation, Meg Campbell, the school’s executive director, said she was disappointed. “I am distressed that he doesn’t seem to be able to hear us,” she said. “He’s very stuck in his view.”

While slides of the finer parts of the neighborhood flashed on a screen beside Fieschi, including the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the University of Massachusetts Boston, Haley Malm, the school’s French teacher, explained that the Foreign Ministry had removed three suburbs of Cleveland from its travel advisories and said she hoped they would do the same for Boston.

“We’re adamant that the warnings be changed,” she said afterward. “It’s frustrating that he doesn’t seem amenable to change.”

For his part, Fieschi said he was walking away with things to think about. He said the ministry has debated whether it is worth the uproar incurred by the specificity of the warnings. He noted the ministry has been accused of racism elsewhere in the United States as a result of its advisories.

“This has caused us a lot of negative reaction,” he said.

As he left the building and headed with an aide to their car, where a driver awaited, he said he was happy to have made the trip. The tricolor flapped above them, beside the Stars and Stripes.

“We do not want to hurt anyone,” he said. “That’s not the point of this.”

French official's travel warning riles Dorchester students, David Abel, Boston Globe, January 16, 2014. Emphases added.

(The article includes a video of the exchange with the students which is worth watching.)