Is France willing to confront its history of xenophobia? That was the question—about the rise in anti-immigrant feelings following the country’s terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016—when ICWAns gathered in Washington for the institute’s semi-annual dinner at the Cosmos Club on December 5.

Institute trustee and UN human rights officer Fabrice Houdart regaled a large audience of trustees, fellowship candidates and many distinguished guests with the story of his ancestor, his mother’s great-great-great grandfather—Theodore Gadala—who arrived in Marseilles from Egypt in October 1801. Gadala was a 16-year-old soldier in the Coptic legion of Napoleon’s army. His assimilation into French society was swift and his descendants prosperous, but he was the exception.

“My intent is not to make a simplistic rebuke to a complex issue by telling a family anecdote,” Fabrice said during a forceful keynote speech in the magnificent fin de siècle Warne Ballroom. “I do not want to minimize the difficulties of building a multicultural society.”

French elites have historically tended to underestimate tensions between the majority and the country’s various minorities, whether women, homosexuals, Arabs, Jews or socioeconomic groups. “Instead of admitting some level of failure in working toward a cohesive society and coming up with strong, courageous and innovative solutions to remedy this problem,” he said, “many just repeat the motto Vivre Ensemble, or living together, like a mantra, hoping things will get better while simultaneously doing little to nothing to address it.”

Here’s video of the talk, along with a video of executive director Gregory Feifer‘s talk earlier in the evening.

Here’s a link to Karina Piser’s end-of-fellowship talk at the Alliance Française and panel discussion earlier in the day.