- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Silver Spring resident Sherry Chiasson said there was no way she could have closed her door to a French teenager because of tensions between French and U.S. leaders.

“It didn’t even cross my mind, because, first of all, we really like the French language,” said Ms. Chiasson, a 43-year-old teacher. “This is our fourth student.”

But the exchange-student program she helps support has struggled to place French students in American homes in the wake of France’s opposition to the war in Iraq.

“It wasn’t difficult [placing French students] before,” said Karen Decker, director of the International Center for Language Studies. “We used the same network this year, but we just didn’t get much response. People just say ‘no’ this year, ‘not this time,’ and when you hear about the other programs, you start to put the picture together.”

The International Center, a monthlong intensive language course in the District, had sought 26 host families in the metropolitan area for its current session but could only secure nine. It eventually placed the remaining students and a chaperone in homes usually reserved for older students.

What’s more, the International Center is still searching for several host homes for a group of 25 students set to come to the United States on Aug. 1. In summers past, Virginia and Maryland families called to volunteer their homes, for which the center pays each host family a monthly stipend of $100. Now the center makes scores of calls in search of host families.

The International Center isn’t the only exchange program finding it difficult to place French students this year. The New York Times recently reported that the France-based Loisirs Culturels a l’Etranger is having problems finding homes for the hundreds of students it sends each year to the United States.

Yet it is not clear what role anti-French sentiment is playing in the placement of exchange students in host homes.

“I don’t think [anti-French sentiment] is outright because the people with whom we are dealing are educated, but I do think more people would be participating if it weren’t for that,” said Barbara Gurr, English coordinator for the International Center for Language Studies. “It would be hard to pin that doubt, but it’s a subtle feeling that you get.”

Mrs. Gurr said some former hosts have given reasons such as heightened terror alerts and other summer engagements as reasons for not housing anyone this year.

None has said the rift between Paris and Washington is behind their decision, she said.

Chantal Manes, who heads the education department at the French Embassy, said she has heard several complaints but has only been asked to intercede once. That was in June when a Philadelphia private girls school rescinded an exchange invitation to a school in southwestern France.

She said she would want to see more than a few reported incidents before coming to the conclusion that Americans have turned a cold shoulder to French exchange students.

An unofficial poll of 25 larger exchange programs conducted this month found that none had reported problems finding American homes for French students for the upcoming year, said John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council of Standards for International Educational Travel, the accrediting organization for exchange programs.

“Unless I hear anything different real soon, it really isn’t harder to place French kids this year than anyplace else,” Mr. Hishmeh said. “We’re having more problems with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome].”

International Center student Erwan Fanchet, 17, of Brest, on France’s west coast, said slurs against his homeland in the height of the Iraqi war haven’t hampered the good time he has had on his visit.

Before he came, though, his friends asked him why he would want to come overseas when some Americans were pouring French wine in the streets and some restaurants were changing the name of french fries to “freedom fries.” He turned to his American pen pal for guidance. “I asked her a lot of questions to know what Americans are feeling about France,” Erwan said during a recent tour of the Library of Congress.

“She told me I didn’t have to be anxious because people are tolerant and they won’t be aggressive.”

He hasn’t been let down. Erwan said several Americans have offered help when the students appear to need it, a couple even throwing in “Vive La France” at the end of their conversations.

Isabelle Moulin, 16, of Paris, has had similar experiences. She said friends and families were a bit nervous about the potential for some negative reaction, but she wasn’t apprehensive.

“They were a little concerned,” Isabelle said. “But to know a country better is better than to just forget it.”

A higher-than-usual number of Americans have applied to teach English in France through a program sponsored by the French government. To date, 1,500 students have been accommodated in France, many with host families, Ms. Manes said.

Morgan Autret, an International Center student, said he hasn’t run into any trouble since coming to America from central France two weeks ago.

“People here are very nice,” said Morgan, 16. “Some people in the Metro, when I am talking to my friend in French, they just show their hand and say, ‘Hey, I’m Brian.’ That’s pretty cool. I heard there would be some stupid things like no french fries, only freedom fries, but most Americans don’t think it.”

JoAnn Kelly contributed to this report.

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