Exclusive: With the hidden children of colonial France

During the colonial period, several thousand children were abandoned by the relations between settlers and African women by their father and brought out from their mother. By decision of the governor of French West Africa, these “colonial mestizos” were separated from the rest of society and placed in orphanages. Through unpublished testimonies, France24 traces the forgotten history of these hidden children of the nation, missing their parenting and in search of recognition. Watch our exceptional 27-minute documentary.

It all began in 1903, when Governor Ernest Roume, head of French West Africa (AOF), decided to set up special spaces for children born to French fathers and “native” mothers, “bastards of the Republic”. In the Ivory Coast colony, “Foyer des métis” was born in the majestic old palace of the governors of Bingerville.

André Manket, 90, was one of the first residents. He has tears in his eyes when he tells of the kidnapping. “They came to look for me in my fishing village of Anono and took me by force. I was seven years old. My aunt cried …”, testifies the old man, who arrived in Bingerville surrounded by two colonial guards. “I was told: ‘Guerard’, your father’s name is over. Now you must take your mother’s name.” We also gave him a number: 39. That meant that before him there were 38 boys and girls, whose only common point was the color of their skin, mixed.

Trauma

Maurice Berthet does not understand. He is not French, but he still owns land in Vitry-le-François, which he got through inheritance … “My father never abandoned me! But he did not know how to do it. He cut wood and lived in the forest, he explains.

Surrender is one thing, loss of identity is another. To gain access to Bingerville and the status of “the nation’s student”, you had to declare yourself “orphaned”, even when you were not.

Same story for Calile Sahily, president of the Association of Former Students at the Orphanage and Foyer des métis (AEFOCI). “How can we be the nation’s students yesterday – and thus children in the French state – and not be French today? It’s a deviation!”, He points out.

They may be over 80, but the trauma is still alive. “We were all laughing. Our mothers were treated like prostitutes,” Monique Yace explains. “We were treated like bastards, scratched skin … Laying down on the orphanage was legalizing abandonment,” adds Philippe Meyer. Everyone today sees themselves as “victims of colonization”.

Well educated, most of these half breeds have been well integrated into the Ivorian community. Jeanne Reinach, no Langui, is the product of this generation of hidden children. However, if it bears the name of one of the richest French families of the pre-war period, it has never received French nationality. She had to wait 77 years to find out that her grandfather, Théodore Reinach, was a member of parliament for Savoie, a member of the Institut de France, owner of castles and villas … “We are angry at France because it has not not done anything for us, “she says bitterly.

“Putting the debate on the table”

At the Ivory Coast independence in 1960, the question of these children was never put on the table. “Those who succeeded in obtaining French nationality are those who, before their majority, obtained a supplementary birth certificate by stating that the father was assumed to be of French origin,” explains Patricia Armand, secretary general of AEFOCI. Must still be informed … The lawyer is also the granddaughter of a newcomer, but she never managed to find the traces of her grandfather, Fernand Combaluzier, but still the land administrator.

Many Ivorians now want France to be inspired by Belgium, as in April 2019 official apology with Méti’s children born in its former colonies. Last month, five Métis women, born in colonized Congo, sued the Kingdom for “crimes against humanity”. They condemn systematic kidnappings of children like them, between 1911 and 1960.

Will France in turn be directed at this kind of strategy? Auguste Miremont, former Minister of Communications for Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who also grew up in the Foyer des Métis, believes that “now is the time to put this debate on the table”.

>> See our special program: “Memories of Africa, Slavery and Colonization”