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A Texan scrummage in black-tie country

Denis Simonneau - Houston, Texas, Etats-Unis - 17 avril 2014

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> “Why do you support terrorists ? Why do you hate Jews ? Why are you abandoning your friends who are defending the free world ?”
> “Please, let me explain...”
> “I don’t want to talk ; I want to knock your block off !”

Thus was the exchange of pleasantries which took place in a swanky Houston hotel between a heavy-set man in a black dinner jacket and myself in April 2003, a few weeks after the US intervention in Iraq, at one of the over 400 annual galas which pepper the social calendar in Texas’s economic capital.

A gala turned rugby match

That year, the Texas Medical Society had decided to choose France as the theme for its annual gala. France, with the Eiffel Tower, its cuisine, cultural life and "art of living" has always been a dream destination for Americans.

As France’s Consul General, I had thus been invited to give a speech at the event. I had just finished speaking and had retaken my seat at the head table when I was confronted by this fifty-something doctor, furious at the position taken by France at the United Nations Security Council by the flamboyant Dominique de Villepin.

Happily, the situation was quickly defused : all the men at the table rose to block him off and hotel security stepped in to "repel the aggressor".

I must admit that I had not experienced such aggressiveness since my days of rugby matches at secondary school and Sciences Po, but his broadside seemed completely incongruous with a gala event and in light of the setting and the black-tie dress code, I did not wish to launch a counter-attack…

La scène se déroule dans un grand hôtel de Houston, lors de l’un de ces très nombreux galas qui nourrissent la vie mondaine de la capitale économique du Texas.

The best of enemies

This episode illustrates the somewhat odd situation experienced by a good many French diplomats in the United States between 2003 and 2004. In a matter of weeks, we had gone from being one of the United States’ strongest allies to complete traitors. And speaking out against colleagues of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was frowned upon in the South, in the very heart of the Bible Belt.

While my colleagues in California were receiving letters of encouragement and bunches of flowers, and while opinions were divided in Washington and New York, in cities like Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans and particularly Houston and Dallas, there was precious little support for France’s position and it took a certain amount of bravery to display one’s friendship for France, its Foreign Ministry or its President. And yet in Houston, George Bush senior continued to eat at French restaurants and talk about his long-standing friendship with Jacques Chirac, whose photo he kept in the entrance to his office to make his thoughts on the issue abundantly clear to visitors.

Similarly, although few agreed with France’s position when we explained it on local TV and radio, or to students, it was nevertheless often understood.

In any event, that Texas Medical Society gala will live long in the memory. I am not sure that France has been the guest of honour since then, despite the many French doctors working in the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Since then, I have always cast a wary eye over big men in black-tie costume striding towards my table, and I think back to the faces across from me that day watching on in amusement. For once, there had been some real entertainment at one of these often never-ending and overly sterile events !

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