One of the talks that we attended at the GENCO 2016 event was that given by the prolific Marie-Odile Mergnac about the subject of her new book, Orphelins et pupilles de la nation. The lecture space was not a room exactly but a space marked off from the exhibition hall with a few panels and a bank of chairs rolled into place. Pretty clever really, but the noise from the chatty folks at the exhibition stands was an annoying distraction. Madame Mergnac is much respected as an author and speaker, so the wobbly little tower of seats was packed.
She began by explaining the quite important difference between children who are wards of the state, pupilles de l'état, and children who are wards of the nation, pupilles de la nation. Children who are wards of the state are those who have been abandoned or who have been rescued from wicked or incompetent parents or families. Children who are wards of the nation are children who have a parent who was killed or severely wounded while defending the nation. The wards of the nation are not taken into care, but remain at home with, usually, their mothers.
Wards of the nation, as a concept, is fairly recent. Though, in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon had arranged for the children of the men who died at the Battle of Austerlitz to be adopted by the nation, this was a single act and not a continuous policy. That policy was created in 1917, during the First World War, when France lost many, many men.
The programme gave to the children the financial help that the family needed because its breadwinner had been killed or incapacitated. Though each child's needs were assessed, generally the assistance included the paying of school fees and ensuring basic health care. There were summer camps, colonies de vacance, established for the children, which they could attend for free. When they were older, they might have received help in obtaining an apprenticeship. In some cases, employment was found for the mother. Each child was supposed to be seen once a year. Even with all of this aid, Madame Mergnac pointed out, life could be very tough for such children, especially if their mother also died.
It was not automatic for a child to become a ward of the nation. The mother had to make a formal request and provide documentary proof as to the father's service, wounds and/or death. If her husband had survived but become handicapped, she had to provide details and proof of this as well as details about each child. A decision would than be made and recorded. If it were in the affirmative, the child would be adopted formally by the nation. This new status would then be added as a marginal note to the child's birth registration.
The administrative department that did and still does handle wards of the nation is the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre, known as ONACVG (originally as ONAC). A potential ward of the nation must be under the age of twenty-one and have lost his or her father or mother or other person who was the main support of the family. In addition to adopting the children of those who gave their lives in France's wars, the nation will also adopt the children of:
- Victims of terrorist attacks committed in France (whatever their nationality);
- Those who suffer from crippling diseases contracted while in service to the nation;
- Those who were killed or died while in the line of duty of ensuring public safety in certain non-military professions, such as magistrates, gendarmes, police and customs officers;
- Elected officials killed while in office;
- Health professionals killed by their patients;
- Those killed or incapacitated by pirates on the high seas.
Of course, children who themselves have been incapacitated by wounds received or diseases contracted in the same way as above can be made wards of the nation.
©2016 Anne Morddel