- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

PARIS — A group of French schoolchildren has been forced to cancel a summer exchange trip to America after being told it was no longer welcome because of anti-French sentiment over the war in Iraq.

The teenagers from Carcassonne, in southwestern France, were told that four of the American families that had agreed to put them up had withdrawn the offer. Other host families, meanwhile, could not guarantee that the children would not be greeted with “unpleasantness.”

The 15 pupils from Jules-Fil Lycee had been due to travel to Philadelphia for three weeks in August as part of a 27-year-old exchange program with Springside, an all-girls private school.

Their parents had paid $1,500 per pupil for the trip, which was abruptly called off last month in an e-mail sent by Court van Rooten, a French teacher at Springside. He also canceled the return trip to France due to be made by American students next year.

“It is with great regret that we have decided to suspend the exchange for this summer and the next,” he wrote.

“The main reason for this is that we do not feel that we can ensure a truly comfortable or hospitable stay for your students as the anti-French sentiment here in the U.S. is very strong.

“While the individual families would be OK, there is, we feel, too great a risk of unpleasantness in public places. I had two families refuse outright to host because they did not wish to house a French student, and two others have since withdrawn.”

Mr. van Rooten added that he and his colleagues at Springside had experienced “unpleasant moments [from colleagues, friends, students, even family] because of our allegiance to the French.”

To bolster his argument, he wrote: “A Pennsylvania senator has introduced a bill in the state legislature to ban the sale of all French alcohol in the state liquor stores.”

The visit had been finalized last September, six months before the war in Iraq led by the United States and Britain, which was bitterly opposed by the French government and most French citizens.

In Carcassonne, the decision was met less with understanding and more with anger and disbelief.

Nicole Blachon, an English teacher who has arranged and accompanied the trips since 1976, said the French pupils and their parents were “profoundly shocked.”

“I couldn’t believe it when I read the message,” she said. “It took me a week to tell the children and their parents because I was so ashamed.

“The parents are frankly scandalized by this xenophobic view. We don’t understand it. We have been friends with this school for many years and I am disappointed with their attitude and the fact that they canceled the visit without any consultation or discussion and informed me in an e-mail.”

Victorine Robin, whose son Pierre, 16, was in the exchange group, said, “It was to have been his first trip to the U.S., and he was so excited he’d been talking about it nonstop since September. It’s every young person’s dream to go to America, and as he will be 17 in August it was also a birthday present.

“Now he’s desperately disappointed. I find it a great pity that, because of adults and politics, these youngsters are being punished. They had nothing to do with the war, and it went over the heads of most of them, so why should they suffer this injustice?”

Mr. van Rooten said, “I am merely the one who runs the program, and I have nothing to say.”

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