REPORTER: Fanou Filali
For almost 40 years, Jean-Pierre Gosse has called France home.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): From time to time in the morning, when I feel sad, I open the window and enjoy the view.
As a child, Jean-Pierre was brought here from the French island of Reunion as part of the government migration program. Now he and his wife, Genevieve, are preparing to leave France forever. Jean-Pierre accuses the French government of stealing him from his family.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): I want people to know. I want to denounce France, the mother country. France claims to stand for human rights. It’s an advanced country everything is supposed to run smoothly. I want to challenge this. If France is so great, how come in the ’60s they allowed the kidnapping of children from Reunion?
The French island of Reunion is just a small speck in the Indian Ocean. Over a 15-year period, 1,600 children were transported from Reunion to central France, on the other side of the world. Jean-Pierre was only 14 when he arrived in France, and was placed with a family of farmers in the region of la Creuse. Today, he is taking his wife and stepdaughter back to the farm where he was kept as a virtual slave.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): You see, Angelique, when I was a little, only 14, they took me from Reunion and brought me here. They forced me to work very hard in the fields. Then, instead of going to bed like you in your bedroom, daddy used to sleep out here, under straw to keep warm. And daddy used to share the dog’s food.
Jean-Pierre spent two years working as a farm labourer for 16 hours a day, unpaid.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): You may say the best thing is to cry, but I can’t. It hurts a lot, but I can’t cry. Because I shed enough tears when I was 14.
The architect of the policy that brought Jean-Pierre to France was Michel Debre – a prime minister under Charles De Gaulle and a leading political figure in post-war France. In the 1960s he had the idea of kerbing the island’s growth by sending children to the French countryside where the population had gone into a steep decline.
MICHEL DEBRE, FRENCH MP (Translation): Dear fellow citizens, we know there is still much poverty here. But you know, as your presence here testifies, that your patriotism and efforts are rewarded by the solidarity metropolitan France extends to you.
The children were told they would receive an education and would be able to go back to Reunion on holiday.
ALIX HOAIR (Translation): The truth is, those children were promised holidays, which never eventuated. They were promised high school and never got it. I can’t see how the state can deny that. Promises weren’t kept.
In the 1960s Alix Hoair worked for the government department in charge of the migration program.
ALIX HOAIR (Translation):In a nutshell, the problem is you take children, make all sorts of promises, then once in France, you drop them, abandon them to farmers to do with them whatever they want.
Alix Hoair was responsible for looking after the children from the time they arrived in France until they were placed with families.
REPORTER (Translation): When did you first realise there were problems and how did you become aware of the fact?
ALIX HOAIR (Translation): When the kids started running away from their foster families and telling me about their lives. They said, “We work 20 hours a day for no pay. We’re not slaves. We’d rather cut sugar cane at Reunion than work here.”
Alix Hoair decided to write about his concerns to the politician who’d dreamt up the scheme, Michel Debre. The letter cost him his job.
ALIX HOAIR (Translation): Then they realised I had written directly to Debre. Then if Prefet told me “I’m calling an emergency meeting”. I said “Fine.” At the meeting he told me “We’re restructuring the centre, we no longer need you.”
In the town of Boussac in the la Creuse countryside, residents celebrate their local saint. Despite a clear attachment to the past, nobody here wants to remember what happened to the children of Reunion.
MAN (Translation): We don’t feel this really concerns us. And we don’t feel responsible for their stay here.
REPORTER (Translation): Heard about the Reunion kids?
MAN 2(Translation): No.
REPORTER (Translation): Are you from la Creuse?
MAN 2(Translation): Yes, I was born here.
REPORTER (Translation): And you, sir?
MAN 3(Translation): I wasn’t yet born then.
Only this man wanted to talk about the children, and why they were brought here.
MAN 4(Translation): The word was that they were taking children to make money.
REPORTER (Translation): Did they make them work?
MAN 4(Translation): More or less.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): Farmers were told here’s free labour, do what you want with it. They don’t eat much, they work hard, they never complain and, best of all, there’s no need to pay them. Because let’s not forget they were paid to care for us.
As a 14-year-old boy, alone and far from his family, the situation was intolerable.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): I tried to kill myself three times. The first time I cut my veins open. The second time I hanged myself with a cow’s chain. The third time I wanted to jump.
REPORTER (Translation): When you tried to kill yourself, did a social worker come to see you?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): No.
Paule Aron was a social worker in Reunion when she went to France to supervise the migration program. I asked her why children like Jean-Pierre were effectively abandoned.
PAULE ARON, FORMER SOCIAL WORKER (Translation): I can’t say, but not enough checks were done, given the number of children. It was impossible for one person to check on 200 kids. It’s also possible that when the social worker came the kid wouldn’t say anything. If the kid says nothing, you can’t guess at what’s going on. If he doesn’t look miserable, how can you know?
When he turned 21, Jean-Pierre was too ashamed to go back to his family and stayed in la Creuse. Now he’s determined to make a good impression. This afternoon he’ll have his hair cut before the big trip.
Jean-Pierre has only made two short visits to Reunion in the past 30 years. Encouraged by his wife Genevieve, he now feels ready to make a permanent move.
ANGELIQUE (Translation): This is the first time I’ve gone to Reunion.
REPORTER (Translation): What’s it like, do you think?
ANGELIQUE (Translation): I don’t get it.
REPORTER (Translation): What do you think it will be like?
ANGELIQUE (Translation): With sunsets on the beach. Not just a beach, it’s a whole ocean.
REPORTER (Translation): What will you do when you get there?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): First I will thank God. If there’s a God somewhere, I’ll thank Him. Deep down, I’ve always wanted to go back to my island. To make my dream come true. So of course I think God, if He’s listening to me.
AIR HOSTESS (Translation): Ladies and gentlemen, it is now 10:15 local time. Welcome to La Reunion, where the temperature is 24 degrees.
Jean-Pierre’s younger brother Robert meets the family at the airport. Robert was only a small boy when his older brother was taken.
ROBERT, BROTHER (Translation): Was it an excellent trip?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): Very good, but I’m so tired.
REPORTER (Translation): How’s the cigarette, Jean-Pierre?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): Well, after 12 hours without one… And look, I’m very happy to be on my island again.
Jean-Pierre’s mother has recently had a stroke and she’s still not well.
VALERIE, MOTHER (Translation): Did you have a good trip?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): Yes, thanks Mami. Now I’m going to sit down. To see my mum again, my family, my brother. For me it’s the start of a new life, in spite of my age. It’s a really emotional thing for me.
Two days after he arrived, Jean-Pierre is going back to where it all began. Hell-Bourg is a temporary centre where children were placed by parents who couldn’t cope. Jean-Pierre’s mother sent him here for a short stay after a cyclone had devastated the island and their home.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): It was here in this big room that they gathered us together to ask us if we wanted to go to France. And from here they took us to the airport. And at the airport… Without knowing what was going on, I ended up at the airport ready to go to France.
When Jean-Pierre boarded the plane, his mother Valerie was at work. She knew that social services planned to send her son to France but says she never officially consented to the trip.
REPORTER (Translation): When you gave your permission to send Jean-Pierre to France, did you sign anything?
VALERIE (Translation): No.
REPORTER (Translation):It was just in words?
VALERIE (Translation): Yes, just words. I didn’t sign anything.
REPORTER (Translation): What did the social worker tell you exactly?
VALERIE (Translation): That she was taking him to France. The welfare services would look after him, he would go to school, get a job. But it didn’t happen. They made him a slave… who looked after animals and worked on farms.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you recent her for letting you go away?
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): No. I’m not angry with my mother or anyone else in the family. What I feel most angry about is the government. They lied to my mother, telling her that I was doing very well in France, that I’d be looked after.
Although Jean-Pierre’s mother says she never signed anything, there is a thumbprint on a form authorising her son’s travel to France. But the form doesn’t specify the nature of the trip, nor the length. And it makes no mention of Valerie giving up her rights to see her child. Valerie couldn’t read or write without assistance, but she did her best to stay in touch with her son.
VALERIE (Translation): I remember I wrote him at least one letter to tell him he had a new brother. He’s 35 now. I wrote to him when the child was four months old, saying he had a little brother.
Jean-Pierre, never received his mother’s letter. Last year he found it, unopened, in his official file. It was vital for the children to receive letters from home, otherwise they’d be put up for adoption. This guaranteed the children wouldn’t return to Reunion, which is precisely what the government wanted. As Reunion’s police commissioner wrote to Michel Debre in 1966:
“To prevent any possibility of returning to Reunion, we can essentially select only young children for whom the legal break with the family of origin has been completed.”
In the case of the Begue family, it was the social workers who tricked a mother into giving up her child.
REPORTER (Translation): How does the photo affect you?
FRANCINA BEGUE (Translation): It hurts.
In 1972, Francina Begue took her 3-year-old daughter, Mari-Linda, to a children’s hospital. She was suffering from dysentery and was placed in the welfare centre to recover. After she got better she was at the nursery to recover.
FRANCINA BEGUE (Translation): After she recovered they called to tell me that my daughter was fine and I could take her back in two weeks. That’s when I signed a form to collect her in two weeks. But it wasn’t true because a week later I went with my husband and they told me I’d signed an abandonment form.
REPORTER (Translation): The form you signed was an abandonment form?
FRANCINA BEGUE (Translation): Yes, but I didn’t know. I thought it was to take her back after she got better. But it was to take my child. And since that day I’ve never seen her again.
Francina can’t read and feels she was forced into giving up her daughter. A year after she signed the document, she was told her child had been put up for adoption.
FRANCINA BEGUE (Translation): The social services said it was too late. They said, “You have to look after your other children.” I was pregnant with my third child. Social services said, “Leave this child to others and we’ll look after your other children.” That’s how they put it.
REPORTER (Translation): Were the children stolen?
PAULE ARON (Translation): No, they were with child protection. Not stolen from their parents. They were with child protection because there were problems. Noone went to take them from their shacks.
Jean-Pierre and Genevieve have now been in Reunion for a week. Jean-Pierre isn’t sure that coming back was the right decision. They’ve come to see Jean-Philip Jean-Marie, president of an association that assists people who want to re-establish themselves here.
JEAN-PHILIP JEAN-MARIE (Translation): I know that some of those who tried to resettle besides Jean-Pierre could not. They had to go back to France.
GENEVIEVE (Translation): It’s true that sometimes I need to cheer him up. Because we only got here a week ago and he says “I want to go back, I won’t make it.”
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): Mentally and emotionally I’m nod ready. I feel like saying I won’t make it because I don’t feel at home.
JEAN-PHILIP JEAN-MARIE (Translation): Between childhood and an adulthood spent elsewhere, something is missing. This school yard full of children. — the school yard full of children. Perhaps the slap from the parent when you were naughty. Then there’s the food, the smells, the whole island.
NEWSREADER (Translation): Today, one of the victims has decided to sue France and claim damages.
It was only after one of the children decided to sue the French Government that an official inquiry was ordered into the controversial migration policy. Only two inspectors were appointed to investigate. Their report, published late last year, made no attempt to find how the children from Reunion had been affected by their experiences.
JEAN-PHILIP JEAN-MARIE (Translation): It’s only a report based on figures. From such a date to such a date so many children were taken. But they haven’t been able to give a reason. There is none. There can’t be any. It’s a crime.
As far as the French Government is concerned, it’s now a closed case. And noone was prepared to speak to Dateline. For Jean Pierre, the report was nothing more than a whitewash.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): I want the state to officially admit that the children from Reunion were deported. That’s the only word for it deportation. The state deliberately deported people from Reunion to France to make slaves of them.
REPORTER (Translation): Was it legal?
PAULE ARON (Translation): Yes, absolutely. We don’t do it anymore, but this was back in 1965. We don’t do that in 2003. Long term temporary placements. But back then it was quite legal to say “We’ll see when you’re able to take him back.”
Jean-Pierre wants more than an apology. He too is now taking legal action against the state claiming 5 million euros in compensation for his suffering.
JEAN-PIERRE GOSSE (Translation): I don’t give a damn about apologies. Saying sorry only takes a second but I had 35 years of suffering. Saying sorry won’t repay a 35-year mess. My deepest wish is to finish my life on my island with people I love, my wife and my daughter, who is here too. I’m going to try and wipe the slate clean. And go forward.