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France to 'adopt' children of Paris attack victims

Library of Congress | Illustration from a poster dating back to 1917 advertising a charity event for World War I widows and orphans

Some 50 children lost one or both parents in the deadly November 13 Paris attacks. As a result of a law dating back to the First World War, these orphans can now become “wards of France”.


Deputy sergeant Thierry Hardouin and his partner were shot at the Belle Equipe restaurant in the 11th arrondissements in Paris, leaving behind three children. Halima Saadi was killed at the same restaurant and is survived by two children, aged 6 and 3-years-old.

With the country still in mourning, Laurence Rossingol, junior minister of family affairs, urged earlier this week that the victims’ children be registered as “wards of France” (“pupille de la nation”), under a law dating back to World War I that entitles them to special state support.

So far, 33 children have been “adopted” by France this year, including 11 who lost one or both of their parents in January’s terrorist attacks on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris.

The status ‘ward of France’ is an extraordinary legal status, which provides additional support for an orphan than would normally be provided. However, some say the weight of the status ‘ward of France’ is a heavy one.

FRANCE 24 spoke with historian Olivier Faron, author of a book on World War I orphans and ‘wards of France’, who explained the origins of the law and the impact it has had on children over the past century.

FRANCE 24: How far back does the status of 'ward of France' date back to?
Olivier Faron: There’s a pretty funny article that came out recently that said that in 1914-1918 war orphans could be seen running around in the streets, like it was some big debacle. It wasn’t at all like that. These children still had mothers, because it was their fathers who had died in combat. At first, they were recognised as war orphans, before they were given the official status as ‘wards of France’. This meant that the state replaced the father as a sort of guardian for the child.

It is a kind of reparation. The ministers at the time decided to mobilise after a number of demonstrations in France in support of the thousands of war orphans. This led to a law in 1917 that was typically French because it consisted of a legal status that existed nowhere else in the world. At the end of World War I, the law affected more than a million children. The same status was adopted for war orphans in the wake of World War II. It was then later extended to include the children of terrorism victims [in 1990 for attacks dating back as far as 1982] and the children of civil servants [in 1993].

A group of 'wards of France' in 1923

FRANCE 24: Did families have to fight for this status during World War I?
Olivier Faron: It’s the same as it is today. You have to file a request with the court, because it’s a legal action. Those who qualify are then registered with veterans affairs. What’s interesting is that it’s not the same status as veterans’ pension. 'Wards of France' are given individual specialist support. There are different kinds of support, including financial and healthcare benefits. Holiday centres were also created for them after World War I. With regard education, as French legislation acknowledges the trauma they have endured it therefore ensures flexibility in their schooling, but they are not exempt from exams.

FRANCE 24: Is it a lifelong status?
Olivier Faron:
You are a ward of France until the age of 21. Of course , ‘wards’ don’t feel that the loss of a parent stops at 21. When I studied the subject, I saw an 80-year-old ‘ward of France’ asking for help in buying a washing machine. It’s case by case. There are measures in place to help wards in difficulty even after the age of 21. Between World War I and World War II, a number of organisations were founded to defend the rights of ‘wards of France’. It’s important for them to be considered as ‘wards’ for their entire lives.

FRANCE 24: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a 'ward of  France'?
Olivier Faron:
The main advantage is the official recognition that these children have suffered a profound trauma. It’s the state of France acknowledging an injustice. The second advantage is tangible support, such as healthcare and financial support.

But in a way, it also makes the mourning permanent. I spoke to a number of ‘wards of France’ during my research. I remember the women in one village near Bordeaux telling me that when they were little, as ‘wards of France’, they were made to dress in costumes that represented France. It was a memory that stayed with them for the rest of their lives, it marked them out as different.

It’s also very difficult to carry the weight of the death of a hero. One of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever observed was when a World War I ‘ward of France’ from the Paris region told me: “What have I ever done? I was just sleeping next to my father when he died of tuberculosis”. It’s a major trauma. It was the same for famed French author Albert Camus, for example. His dad died [fighting in World War I] when he was just two-years-old. He spent the rest of his life saying that it had nothing to do with him because he had never known his father. But Camus’s mother wore pieces of the shell that killed her husband for the rest of her life. And, when we read Camus’s “The First Man”, which was published posthumously, the importance of his father is clear. Being the child of someone who died for France is highly charged and laden with meaning.

FRANCE 24: How has the law changed since it came into effect in 1917 and how will it impact the children of the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks?
Olivier Faron:
Paradoxically, little has changed. The official status, the process to acquire it and the benefits are largely the same. But like with all public policy, there’s the question of what resources are available and how much money there will be for benefits. Today, the junior ministry of veterans and war victims is responsible for financing the programme. While ‘wards of France’ from World War I spoke positively of the support they received, many of those who I interviewed from World War II felt the aid they had received was inadequate.

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