The French Minister Went to Dorchester
But not to tell his citoyens that it’s safe to walk there at night.
There’s something so stereotypically French about the conversation between Dorchester and Boston’s French consul general over a French foreign ministry website warning to tourists to avoid walking in Dorchester at night.
There’s an ironclad law of physics which states that it takes an average of 12 minutes before a conversation with a French person turns to the subject of America’s high rate of gun crime or its obesity epidemic.* “Vous Americains and your gunz,” they shake their heads. (And they don’t mean your toned biceps.) In its recommendation to citizens visiting Boston, the French government warns them to avoid nighttime traffic in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. Yet the French Ministry’s website showed foresight in cautioning its tourists not to mention the topic too obnoxiously. “Because of the current international context and the sensitivity of American public opinion,” the website says in French, “our countrymen are advised to refrain from conversations on these subjects in public places.”
The wisdom in this sentiment has born out as Dorchester’s Codman Academy students have waged an educational campaign to convince the French Ministry to change their warning. That’s because Fabien Fieschi, the French consul general, is, indeed, pretty inelegant when holding these conversations in public. After students stormed the Bostille—a terrible name we just made up for the Boston Consulate’s offices—to request a meeting, he wrote a letter telling them, “The solution probably does not consist of shooting the messenger, but in making sure that neighborhoods that suffer more than others from crime benefit from improvements in their situation.” Basically, “it’s not France’s fault that your neighborhood is scary.”
But hang on, for Fieschi brought a slightly less defensive point with him when he visited Codman Academy this week: Not only is it not France’s fault that Dorchester is scary, it’s also not Codman Academy’s fault. “It should not be taken as offensive, not to you, because you’re not responsible for everything that happens in your neighborhood,” he said according to a Globe write-up on the summit. Sweet, really. And finally, he noted that even though this whole situation has become very annoying for him, he still can’t change the wording on the website. “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.”
The students have argued that the French government is betraying its citizens anyway by scaring them away from a vibrant neighborhood without good reason. Though Fieschi acknowledged that the Ministry has wondered whether specific warnings are worth the PR headaches, he never accepted the idea that the safety warnings weren’t accurate.
Some, like Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, argue that the truth is more complex than either a French government website or Codman Academy’s kids let on. Dorchester is a big place, a collection of many places really, with varying levels of safety at varying times of day. It wouldn’t hurt for the French minister to sound a similar, less defensive note by acknowledging that cities can’t really be summed up in 100 word blurbs on government websites—even if he also stated that his website would remain unchanged for the moment.
*Statistic may be entirely invented by the author.