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thedrifter
04-18-03, 09:19 AM
For VMI Cadets, A French Twist On Diplomacy
Campus Relations Avoid Strain

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2003; Page B01


LEXINGTON, Va., April 17 -- The memo went out to cadets at Virginia Military Institute two weeks before the arrival of their guests from the Ecole Polytechnique.

The message: Be nice to the French.

The two military schools have enjoyed a friendly relationship for nearly 175 years -- one of VMI's founders, in fact, attended the prestigious academy in Paris -- and an exchange program for seven, but with the two nations at odds over the war in Iraq, VMI officials sought to head off any further fraying of Franco-American ties.

Thus the e-mail sent to each cadet by VMI's director of international programs, which stated: "Do not allow your personal feelings regarding recent political differences between the United States and France to cloud your judgment."

Whether or not the warning was necessary, diplomacy has been the order of the day since the 15 French students -- five women and 10 men -- arrived here Sunday.

"There are cadets who definitely don't appreciate the French position, but their feelings aren't so strong that they'd cause an incident," said Robert Osypowicz, 22, a fourth-year VMI student who spent a semester at the Paris academy in 2000 and this week escorted the French visitors around. "It's just been common sense not to talk about [the conflict in Iraq]. Everyone knows we have completely different viewpoints. . . . Everyone has been careful not to make it worse."

Fourth-year cadet Curtis Nieboer, 21, said he and his roommate have been careful to avoid political discussions with the French student sharing their room. "A few cadets probably think it's absolutely the wrong time" for the exchange program to be taking place, Nieboer said. "But, war or no war, it feels the same . . . as it did the year before."

The French students have come with the goal of improving their English. The language barrier, VMI students said today, probably helped keep the peace.

But communication hardly seemed a problem during a morning economics forum that opened with a comparison of unilateralism and multilateralism. The students seemed largely unamused by assistant professor Atin Basu's assertion that the French might have to give up some of their quality of life if they want to be a major world power.

"It's always nice to get a different point of view," Basu told the departing students. "Some I agreed with, some I didn't. That's the nature of life."

"We agree to disagree," shot a voice from the back of the room.

The week's lectures have touched on sensitive topics, including foreign policy toward Iraq, espionage and terrorism.

"The conversations have been interesting," said VMI spokesman Chuck Steenburgh. "VMI cadets aren't shrinking violets. They're polite but inclined to ask difficult questions."

Several times, observers said, discussions got tense, such as when one Ecole student voiced her opinion that deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. But the conversation never veered out of control, a student said, possibly because the discussions were not widely attended by VMI cadets.

The visiting students said they mostly avoided discussion of the war in favor of learning more about American culture. Music, video games and "admiration" (among the men) for actress Jennifer Aniston seem to top that list.

On Wednesday, 30 cadets -- French and American -- met on VMI's historic parade ground for games of kickball, volleyball and Frisbee. The only act of "hostility," students said, was an errant water balloon that drenched one of the French.

Complaints from the Ecole cadets focused jokingly on the amount of sugar in American spaghetti sauce and the absence of shower stalls in the men's bathrooms.

"They have no privacy here!" joked student Antoine Lefargue, 20.

Camille Brege, 19, said that she felt welcomed in Lexington and that it was time for talks between France and the United States to move forward.

"The war is finished, and we must look to the future," Brege said. "It's important to have a friendly relationship between our two countries. We want the same things: Iraqi freedom and people living in democracy. We are not divided.

"Our friends at home are expecting us to come back with tales of woe and fistfights with the Americans, but our relationship has been cemented."

Echoed Ecole professor Declan McCavana: "When you come through a period of tension, the relationship grows stronger. That's what this trip has shown."


2003 The Washington Post Company


Sempers,

Roger