David Abel, Boston Globe, January 16, 2014
The dapper man in the dark suit was surrounded by students, many of them looking at him with growing incredulity.
They had flown the French flag in his honor and welcomed him with local pastries and a handwritten sign that read “Bienvenue.” Random students stuck their heads out of classrooms, offering the diplomat a giddy “Bonjour.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.