"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Becoming a ward of the FOEFI
Created in 1949 by William Bazé (1899-1984)—a large landowner who was himself Eurasian—the Féderation des Oeuvres de l’Enfance Française d’Indochine (Federation of French Children’s Charities in Indochina; FOEFI) was a descendant of earlier organizations and brought together a number of philanthropic actors. Its goal was to take custody of the children of French fathers, whether these fathers had abandoned their children or remained “unknown, presumed French.” Thus, the FOEFI took in children whose mothers entrusted them to the organization until they reached the age of majority. The mothers promised not to obstruct their children’s education and they recognized the FOEFI’s “right to send [their] child abroad” (fig. 10), in conformity with a 1943 decree that specified the status of “Eurasian wards from Indochina.”
The FOEFI’s various establishments in Indochina (centers, orphanages, boarding schools, etc.) were the first educational structures to which the young girls who attended them—whether for a few months or a few years—were exposed (1). There, they had to respect the rules of group living, received their first basic education, and learned about France, which staff pointed out to them on a map, using a bamboo pointer. The establishments had few means, but the food, most of the staff, and the environment were Vietnamese (fig. 11). Thus, passing through these establishments was a form of initiation into French society and represented a transition between the first, Vietnamese phase of the girls’ lives and what would come after.
The FOEFI began to arrange for its wards to be sent to France: these “young and malleable children, destined to return to Indochina and, for the most part, to stay there” would go to the metropole in the hopes that, later, “they would put down roots [in Indochina] and thus ensure France’s enduring presence [there].” The project thus started out with clear colonial aims, but events forced it to evolve: as decolonization became inevitable, the objective changed. The goal became to assimilate mixed-race children who had been sent to the metropole into the French population, no matter their age. Whether out of “humanism” or ideology—in any case, convinced it was saving “an entire generation from the basest forms of turpitude and from a most abject destiny”—the FOEFI organized what amounted to a full-scale migration of mixed-race children (2).
A one-way ticket to the metropole and assimilation
The “repatriation” (the word consistently used by the FOEFI and the colonial administration) of Eurasian children involved a one-way journey. Madeleine M., who was born in 1948 and left Vietnam in 1956 recounts that “on the quay, the whole family was there, and I saw this huge boat. And mama lined us up and then they asked us to say goodbye to Vietnam. Not to our family, to Vietnam! We were saying goodbye to Vietnam. And so, as the young child of seven and a half that I was, I said goodbye to Vietnam.” The girls arrived after a boat journey that lasted around thirty days (fig. 12), and they recall an endless voyage, seasickness, stopovers (although they never got off the boat), and the names of the ships: the Champollion, the Henri Poincaré, and the Cyrénia, on which Madeleine traveled between December 1955 and January 1956 (fig. 13). On board, there were many soldiers returning to France; “instinctively, each girl chose a papa for herself. A French papa, a soldier, since we were all the children of French soldiers.”
Those who arrived by plane did not have the same sense of the geographical distance. Hélène M., who was born in 1957 and left Vietnam in 1963, recounts that “The plane took off, we landed in Saigon, and then in Delhi, I think…What I remember best is the train trip, arriving in Saint-Rambert in the van, the nuns all dressed in black with their veils, and I was terrified of them but too tired to react.”
The FOEFI photos: photographic evidence
Waves of Eurasian children were sent to France between 1947 and the early 1970s, with significant surges in certain years (for example, in 1949, 1954, and 1963).
Although the memory of this displacement is vivid in the minds of those Eurasians, the history of it and of the FOEFI are now just beginning to be written, and individual lived experience and trauma are essential axes for analyzing it. A wealth of sources from the administration and from organizations can be drawn on, and photographs of the various centers that housed children (both in Indochina and in France) are common in the archives. For those who looked after the children and for the FOEFI, these images were proof that the centers were well maintained, that the children were well taken care of, and that they were studying and being trained; in a word, that they were thriving. These photographs, which belong to various archival collections, notably the ANOM’s (1), are thus essential sources for writing the story of this episode, but often they were highly staged. See, for example, the group photograph in fig. 14, which includes Marguerite Graffeuil (1895-1991), widow of Maurice Graffeuil, the Resident Superior of Annam from 1934 to 1940. Madame Graffeuil took a particular interest in the girls of the FOEFI, and can be seen here posing with the residents of one center. The photograph also shows a nun from the Notre-Dame-des-Missions congregation, which, under the leadership of Sister Marie Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, alias Mother Jeanne (Rose Bichon, 1899-1979), was very involved in the care of Eurasian girls. The first group of Eurasian girls sent to France (a group of about 20) arrived in 1947 at an institution in Toulon (fig. 15).