The story of the Petits Paris, these children of the Public Assistance placed in the Morvan

For more than a century, until the 1970s, the Assistance Publique placed hundreds of thousands of abandoned or orphaned children in the Morvan. There were so many of them that they were referred to by their city of origin: Les Petits Paris.

The story of the pupils of Morvan is unknown, it has long been shameful. In this documentary, Frédérique Lantieri takes us to meet the “Little Paris”.

Since a Napoleonic decree, abandoned children had to be placed in the countryside, with farmers or artisans. If other regions have welcomed pupils from the Public Assistance, none has received as many and for as long. In the Morvan, we even speak of “feeding industry”!

Not a village, not a hamlet, not a house that could not count on the pension paid by the Assistance and on the work of the Petits Paris.

At all times the Morvandiaux have not hesitated to travel to acquire additional income to that of their land. At the beginning of the 16th century, it was the heyday of the log floats who brought firewood to Paris by waterway and the galvachers (carriers or peasant carters). Activities that link the Morvan to the city of Paris.

The Morvan, nourishing land

At that time, the great Parisian bourgeoises did not “lower themselves” to breastfeed their infants. They therefore welcome into their homes nannies from Morvan, this region well known to Parisians with whom they do business. Within Morvandelle families, there is a whole missing generation (nursing mothers in Paris, fathers on the roads or at the float). The reception of the children of the Assistance therefore provides the necessary manpower to run the farms deserted by the parents.

It is a story that was lived in an extremely massive way but also totally silent.

Marion Blanc, Director of the Welfare Nurses and Children Museum

This singular story, no one has ever told it. Neither the old Petits Paris nor the foster families. Too shameful for all.

To recruit these foster families, Public Assistance opens local agencies in Avallon, Quarré-les-Tombes, Saulieu… The directors of these offices choose the foster families and check them regularly.
They organize inspection tours four times a year in each house to check hygiene, food, attendance at school… But it is difficult for them to spot abuse and mistreatment since they announce their arrival!
“They were well received, the children were well dressed…everything was going very well. But when they had turned their backs, it was not that! “recalls Michel Millet, a former teacher.
Because some of these inspectors take advantage of these visits by being “greased” by families who bribe them with food from the farm (bread, poultry, butter, etc.)

Raymond, a former pupil, has a real aversion for these directors of Public Assistance who, according to him, had no consideration for these foster children and still remembers that one of them spat on him.

From the age of 13, the pupil must work because the Public Assistance no longer pays pensions to families, however it continues to decide everything and in particular their profession.
The agency directors organize sorts of fairs, markets for servants to place their wards. They are then called “rented”.
One of the characteristics of the Morvan is that half of the children brought up in a family until the age of 13 were then placed in this same family… This allowed these children to make “roots” says scientist Marie-Laure Las Vergnas.

The Stigmatization of the Assistance’s Pupils

At that time, the children of Public Assistance were all dressed the same way: the same blouse, the same galoshes. The institution sends the children a trousseau for the winter and one for the summer. A kind of unique costume, identifiable by all.

For boys, it consists of shorts, which they wear in summer and winter, no underwear, and a kind of cape with a large hood. A “hood” also worn by girls.

I dreamed of having a coat, just so I could put my arms in it.

Mireille, former ward

The pupils also have a small chain with a medal on which is inscribed a serial number. Mireille still remembers hers: 4976.

She equates this to the registration numbers affixed to cattle”we are nobody, we are in the herd”.

This chain, Marcel, a former pupil, remembers that at the age of 12 agents from the Public Assistance came to take it away from him. They have him”cut off his identity“, a real shock for him and which remains forever a trauma.

Scattered siblings

Children placed by the Assistance Publique are rarely settled with their siblings within the same family.

This is the case of Raymond, who arrived in his foster family at the age of two and a half.
He had to wait until he was eight to learn that he had brothers who were placed with another family… less than a kilometer from his home!

It is the same for Mireille.
One day, she receives a package from Assistance containing a small red handbag. This package has no message and the girl can find no explanation for this “gift”.
She discovers the existence of a sister during a visit from a nanny to her foster mother’s home. This lady is accompanied by a little girl, Odette. This little girl also received a package containing a red handbag.
Mireille learns that day that she not only has a sister, but also a brother, placed in another family. Her amazement is at its height when she is also informed that she has a father and that it is this man who sent this gift to her two daughters.

The life of the Petits Paris in the Morvan

While most foster children are treated well, others are exploited.

Raymond is one of the children who did not have the chance to “fall well”.

His foster parents, then in their sixties, he called them “Pépère and Mémère”. He never uttered the word mom in his life and “kisses were a bunch of nettles and cudgels…
Painful memories that he struggles to share without the emotion coming to the surface. He remembers with pain the wickedness of his foster mother.

I was the slave of the farm.

Raymond, former ward

Annick’s father is placed at the age of fifteen days in a loving foster family.
As an adult, he becomes the local postman. During the holidays the young girl accompanies her father on his rounds. Sometimes he doesn’t want her to go back to the farms with him because what she would have seen there would have traumatized him: children tied to the leg of a table, the insults, the beatings. Through the windows, she looks all the same and in custody chilling images. She also remembers a friend from school, also a pupil, who had damaged fingers… eaten away by rats in the barn where she slept.

Michel considers that he was lucky.
He never left the hamlet near Quarré-les-Tombes where he landed, a five-year-old Parisian. What saved him was nature, the work in the fields he did when he was very young with “the grandfather”. Today, he raises sheep in next to the houses of those he calls his brother and sister.

Milk brothers and sisters

It became obvious that the family in the heart of the Morvan is not the blood family. These pupils become “milk brothers and sisters”. This sibling relationship goes beyond blood.

Alain, son of a foster family, looks nostalgically at photos from the time.

His family took in more than twenty children. Children who stayed six months, others fifteen years. At the time, he was very sad when the children placed in his family left: “It leaves scars“.
He has always considered these wards as brothers and sisters and he keeps in touch with most of them.

After decades of silence and shame, the great history of Les Petits Paris is finally beginning to be written and the records of its origins have been unearthed.

Marie-Laure Las Vergnas, scientist, goes to the Archives of Paris where she examines the registers where all the children placed in the Morvan are listed.
The information it collects is sent to a database in order to reconstruct all these movements between Paris and Burgundy. This database allows all those who wish to know where they come from and perhaps to understand why they were abandoned.

Frederique Lantieri’s film offers us poignant and moving testimonies of the life of these Little Paris.

The Morvan of the “Little Paris”, a film by Frederique Lantieri
A France Télévisions / Nomade Productions / Wallraff co-production

► Broadcast Monday, November 22 at 11:10 p.m. and Tuesday, November 23 at 9:50 a.m.

To be found in replay on our documentaries page “France in real life

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