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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM HOUSTON

Rude Awakening to Xenophobia Comes After 23 Years in America

A 66-year-old French woman says ignorance is to blame for a threat at her quiet home. The FBI and local police are investigating.

March 22, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Francoise Thomas emigrated from France 23 years ago and nestled into a slice of Americana, selling real estate in the master-planned community of Kingwood, home to duck ponds, bridge clubs and canopies of shade trees. "Even the service stations are beautifully landscaped!" one advertisement declares.

Never, she said, did she expect to fall victim to a hate crime because of her nationality. Then again, she never thought members of Congress would rename French fries. She never thought restaurant owners would gain favorable publicity by dumping Dom Perignon down the toilette.

So perhaps it should have come as no surprise, Thomas said with a meek shrug, when she walked out of her home last weekend to discover that vandals had spray-painted this message on her garage door: "Scum go back to France."

"It happened this past Saturday," said Thomas, 66, who lives with her cat in a condominium 22 miles north of downtown Houston. "I got up, and it was garbage day. I went to get my garbage can at 6:30 in the morning. It was a beautiful morning. I turned around and saw it, in huge red letters. It was a very nasty experience."

Thomas grew up in the tiny, medieval French village of Uzerche, which sits atop a hill in a crook of the Vezere River, in central France near Limoges.

During World War II, when she was a girl, her mother, Madeleine, became a highly decorated member of the French Resistance. Madeleine's job: Rescue American pilots shot down by German troops, nurse them back to health and sneak them to safety in Spain. Nazis eventually captured her and sentenced her to death, but did not have time to execute her before the end of the war, Thomas said.

"Did you tell them what I did?" Madeleine, who still lives in France, asked her daughter when told of the graffiti incident.

"I don't think anyone cares about that anymore," Thomas told her mother with a chuckle.

Governments across the globe have denounced the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a myopic, reckless war that will leave behind immense instability. Many Americans have grown increasingly intolerant of people who oppose the invasion, and much of their anger has been directed at France, an outspoken critic. French President Jacques Chirac has said the war will cause "serious consequences for the future," and one recent poll showed overwhelming support for that position among his constituents.

"Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion," reads one joke that has been widely circulated on the Internet. Several members of Congress recently took time out of their busy schedules to march down to the mess hall, where they renamed French fries "freedom fries." A movement to rename the French Quarter in New Orleans appears to have started as a joke -- then picked up steam among residents who took it quite seriously.

"At least that was all just released tension. We all had a laugh because it was so stupid," Thomas said. "This is different. I have always felt very privileged, because I have two countries that I love, France and the United States. Now I feel sad. I was not expecting this toward the end of my life."

Thomas blames ignorance -- and television commentators such as Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who has proposed a boycott of French goods -- more than hate.

"Bill O'Reilly has vomited on the French for so long that anyone who watches him feels they must do the same," she said. "People think you have to hate the French people because they don't always agree with the United States. That's ridiculous."

O'Reilly could not be reached for comment.

Thomas' neighbors have descended on her home this week. Friends she hadn't heard from in years sent chocolates and cards of support. Contractors she worked with while selling homes kept showing up at her door to help. It was a good thing they did: They had to paint her garage door four times before the graffiti was finally hidden.

"I really feel for Francoise. It's just ridiculous," said Amy Goldstein, another longtime real estate agent in the area. "Our country is a real melting pot, or it's supposed to be, anyway. France is taking the position that they aren't supporting us -- but it's not like they're supporting [Iraq] either. They are right in the middle, and I can understand their position. I don't think we over here should be punishing France for that. And we certainly shouldn't be punishing Francoise for it."

Houston police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, and Houston FBI spokesman Bob Doguim confirmed Friday that federal authorities are also involved in the probe.

"We're going to get involved in any kind of case like this," Doguim said. "It's something we take very seriously."

Thomas said she assumes the culprit is someone she knows. After all, she said, her condominium is tucked away in a large community and is difficult to find. And the person who did this, obviously, knew she was French.

She said she expects the anti-French fervor to die down quickly now that the war -- which she has mixed feelings about -- is underway.

"People have bigger things to worry about now," she said. "There are going to be casualties. It's not a joke anymore."

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