Jean-Jacques Martial was six years old when he arrived at Orly airport in Paris one November morning wearing flip-flops and shorts. He had been removed from his grandmother’s care in the French island territory of Réunion as part of an official scheme to help boost the falling population in the rural heart of the mother country. He had only one idea in his head: “I was going to cultivate myself and I would denounce what had happened to me,” he said.
Martial went on to do just that, and on Tuesday the French national assembly will address this shameful chapter of its history for the first time when members vote on a motion to formally recognise the state’s role in the scandal of Réunion’s “stolen children”. From 1963 to 1982 a total of 1,615 children were forcibly dispatched from the Indian Ocean territory, whose population was exploding, in order to repopulate rural areas.
“They took babies who were only six months old,” said Ericka Bareigts, one of the territory’s deputies who is behind the initiative. Poor and illiterate families were informed that their children would be sent to France, “and of course they imagined Paris and the Eiffel tower,” she said. “They were promised a home, schooling, and told they would succeed. The families were told the children would return for the holidays. But it was all a lie.”
Martial, who is now 55, was initially placed in a home before being transferred to Guéret, in the Creuse district of central France, where he was brought up by an elderly farmer and his wife. Martial has recounted his experiences in a memoir, Une Enfance Volée (Stolen Childhood), which describes how, after four years in the Creuse, he was fostered by a young couple in the Normandy harbour town of Saint Vaast la Hougue.
The scandal was only brought to the attention of the wider French public when Martial tried to sue the state for €1bn in 2002 for “kidnapping and sequestration of minors, roundup and deportation”.
“It’s a lot of money, but how much is a stolen childhood worth?” he asked. His case failed because the events took place outside the statute of limitations.
He returned to Réunion in 2006, but will be back in France for the debate, the final leg of a long journey for justice. “After the national assembly, I’m going to turn the page,” he said. “I’m tired.”
Another victim, Simon A-Poi, was 12 years old when he was driven to Guéret on 6 September 1966 with one of two coachloads of children from Réunion. “There were children of all ages – 12, 15, 17, even three,” he recalled on Sunday. He was an orphan who was removed from his grandmother’s care with four brothers and sisters, and 12 cousins. “We were the largest family to arrive in the Creuse.
“We thought we were going to Paris, to see the Eiffel tower, and the Arc de Triomphe. And we ended up in a home in Guéret. In October it was the first time we had seen snow, we thought it was cotton wool falling,” he told a local TV station in Réunion.
The children’s forced removal was the brainchild of Michel Debré, a former Gaullist minister who was then a deputy for Réunion. In 1963 he discovered an island suffering from a 60% redundancy rate and a booming population. “He must have thought that it was a logical solution to a problem of depopulation somewhere else in France. Never mind that it was a two-day journey from Réunion, where the temperature was 40 degrees. He completely denied the human aspect, and the diversity,” said Bareigts.
The resettlements were organised by the state-run Office for the Development of Migration in Overseas Territories, with most of the victims being sent to the Creuse. The children worked on the farms or became the servants of bourgeois families. Some took their own lives, while others were interned in psychiatric hospitals. The Office was disbanded in 1983, two years after the Socialist president François Mitterrand came to power.
The motion to be debated on Tuesday does not provide for compensation, but will carry a strong moral weight. The draft denounces the “forced migration” of the children from Réunion Island and describes their fate as “irreparable”.
France is not the only state to have sinned against its own children. The Australian government apologised in 2008 for the removal of an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly assimilated from the 1890s to the 1970s. The United States and Canada had similar policies for their indigenous peoples.
Colonial Britain exported 100,000 children to populate Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada under the “home children” programme. And the story of Philomena, now an Oscar-nominated film, highlights Ireland’s treatment of thousands of single mothers whose children were forcibly removed by the Catholic church.
Yvan Combeau, a historian from Réunion, noted that the French motion did not ask for an apology, but he said every word had been carefully weighed so that historical archives could be opened up. “The text seeks reparation through a recognition of the history of these exiles. Reparation must come through knowledge and recognition,” he said in an email.
“We need to analyse this from a political point of view,” said Bareigts. “Réunion used to be a colony. We have known slavery. We can’t sweep these things under the carpet. We need to recognise what happened so that we and the victims can move on.”