Agents of Future Promise

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Pictures for Pétain: the use and abuse of colouring pencils

Dodd picture (118x150)By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Making use of children for the transmission of political and cultural ideologies within societies is long-standing and widespread. As Vicky Crewe has written in this blog, ideologies of gender roles and identity are transmitted through children’s toys and games. Not only serving social stability by embedding masculine and feminine roles in society, such toys and games also make money for their manufacturers. Laura King, also in this blog, has shown that Winston Churchill used ideas of children and the future to justify military and political action during World War Two. A lot was at stake; but was using the winsome and war-affected child to put pressure on adults a morally neutral act?

Our vision of childhood abhors the exploitation of children in ways that jeopardise their bodies – exploitation in labour, sexual exploitation – and an idea of children as innocent, dependent and fragile is widely accepted. But children are constantly being used commercially, culturally and politically: is this not a form of child exploitation too? How much control do children have over how images of children or ideas of children are used, given that their agency in society is usually denied? This ‘Agents of Future Promise‘ AHRC Care for the Future research project will ask further questions about the morality of using children in these ways, drawing on historical examples to reflect upon current concerns.

Take children in wartime France. At Christmas 1940 a ‘Surprise for Marshal Pétain’ – head of the Vichy government since the summer of that year – was organised. Children were invited to draw a picture of ‘the little corner of France that [they] love the most’ and send it to him. He received two million drawings from children in the ‘Free Zone’ of France, the southern part which was not occupied by the Germans at the point. These pictures and the texts written on their backs were then used freely by the government to demonstrate children’s patriotic love for their country and their leader Marshal Pétain, and their desire to participate in the renewal of France – all three were highly politicised concepts.

A page of the 1942 edition of the widely-read Almanach Hachette showed four drawings and quoted from others in an article called ‘The Marshal and the Children of France’.

Four drawings by children were featured in the article 'The Marshal and the Children of France'

Four drawings by children were featured in the article ‘The Marshal and the Children of France’ (Almanach Hachette, 1942)

Marshal Petain, when he spoke to children on the radio, told them: ‘I have a particular affection and concern for you.’ He also said to each French person: ‘You must give me the faith of your heart and the faith of your reason.’ From the bottom of their hearts, children’s responses poured out. They understood straight away that the Marshal was truly the Father of the Patrie [fatherland]. ‘My dear Marshal Pétain, I’m writing to you to give you courage.’ Thus began a letter from Paul Morin, eight years old.

Did Paul Morin know his words would be used in this way? The article went further, with a metaphorical flight of fancy, asking the Almanach’s readers:

Can you see this little lad of eight years old, clinging onto the neck of the Great Old Man in whose arms lies injured France, whispering those words into his ear? Youth: it’s our only hope. His gesture proves that the France of tomorrow, inspired by instinct, understands that she cannot live except by putting her little hand into the Marshal’s to walk towards the future at his side.

Did Paul Morin know that, by sending a drawing to Marshal Pétain, he would be imagined into a metaphor which now conjured his body into the picture too? Giving his advice and counsel to the man who held the future of France in his hands and speaking on behalf of ‘the France of tomorrow’?

These extracts are interesting because they give us an idea first of Vichy’s image of the nature of the child – affectionate, simple, instinctive (like Pétain), knowing a truth that his parents had failed to grasp and therefore a more trustworthy kind of citizen. Second, they show that children were at the heart of Vichy’s project. Through numerous invitations to write and draw for Pétain, they were pulled directly into political propaganda. And third, they suggest an extended metaphor which likened France itself to a misguided, mistreated child, protected, cared for and led forwards by its father, Marshal Pétain.

While this example is drawn from a particular historical moment, the ideas that underpin it are more wide-reaching. How far is it appropriate to instrumentalise children for political, cultural and commercial purposes?


Read other posts about Agents of Future Promise.

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