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Children and charity in Vichy France

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

Children's gala, Paris 1941

Children attend a gala in Paris financed by the money collected by other children, May 1941

‘Before we get [children] used to being thin, we have to show them that it’s not shameful to be poor’, came an instruction to the press from the Vichy government. Children in wartime France had to learn to deny themselves, to emulate the self-sacrifice of Marshal Pétain who ‘gave himself’ to France, and to see the benefit that each little cog brought to the bigger machine. There was a recognition that children were suffering. Resigning those in need to their lot, but also encouraging them to help others was the surest way to get the most out of children’s enthusiasm and energetic compassion. By focusing on poverty, hardship and rigour, children could be inspired to work harder and find satisfaction in the idea of helping their young neighbours. The irony, of course, was that many children being set up as agents of charity were themselves in need of that charity.

Children’s charitable fundraising on behalf of other children is an important aspect of their politicised activity in Vichy France. In spring 1941, children over 12 years old were drafted into a mass campaign to sell badges worth 50 centimes each in the streets. Each child was given 100 badges, and across the department of the Seine there were 20,000 sellers. These youngsters approached their task with enthusiasm and competed with each other to see who could sell the most. The profits went directly to other children: they paid for grand theatrical performances for children from the most hard-hit sections of society – those who had been bombed out or made refugees, or whose parents were either prisoners or unemployed. 120,000 seats were available at the galas which took place across the Paris region, and impoverished children enjoyed the antics of clowns, magicians, contortionists … and of Babylas and his amazing performing geese.

The performer Babylas and his performing geese

The performer Babylas and his performing geese

In 1942, a new Christmas campaign was begun whereby the under-15s were to earn 2 francs and send them through to Marshal Pétain in favour of needy children. ‘We’ll give the under-15s the chance to make a real contribution on behalf of others and let them show their love for Marshal Pétain. It is, after all, among the very youngest that this love retains the most purity’, wrote the Youth Section of the Propaganda Ministry. Never missing an opportunity to use children to embed the regime more firmly into French society, the propagandists also saw the fundraising potential of harnessing children’s love for Pétain which they so assiduously cultivated.

While the official line stated that children should work hard for what they collected, many charitable endeavours clearly gave great deal of pleasure as well as the happy glow of altruism. A letter arrived in Vichy from 9 little children on holiday together with their families in the mountains, who had put on a little play and collected 255 francs. Another group had performed Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, inviting friends and family, and raised a whopping 1720 francs. 12-year-old Guy put on a Guignol (Punch and Judy) show with two friends; they were sending 50 francs, half of the sum they had raised, ‘to save some little children in our great and beautiful France’. The other half would be reinvested in their puppet theatre in the hope of raising more next time. For those who could afford Punch and Judy theatres or mountain holidays, money was not short. The amounts they sent spoke of comfortable lives.

Other donations were more modest. Paulette sent ‘10 francs from my piggy bank’, while Suzanne enclosed within her letter to Pétain ‘the small sum of 10 francs which I got today for my 8th birthday, to help some poor little children’. Raymonde sent a bit less, regretting that ‘5 francs isn’t very much these days [but perhaps] a poor child would be happy to buy 5 francs worth of bread’. A 6-year-old donated a doll’s cradle, but asked that, in return, the recipient say ‘a prayer for my Daddy who is a prisoner in Germany’.

Jumping forward into our present times, children continue to take part fundraising for other children in so many ways. The long-running British children’s TV show Blue Peter was my own first encounter with charitable giving during the 1980s. Its annual appeals sought to highlight the plight of children elsewhere, and engage British children with helping them. As a little girl, it opened my eyes to children’s poverty across the world – although how much, I wonder, could I really understand that hardship? The BBC’s ongoing Children in Need appeal inspires enormous participation from children in its fundraising activities, which they take on with great gusto. Save the Children is currently running the Den Day campaign in which children are asked to build a ‘den’ and camp out in it overnight. Their sponsorship money will provide food, shelter and healthcare, protection and education for children across the world. Charitable fundraising is one of the ways in which children actively participate in society. This kind of ‘instrumentalisation’ or use of children, then, can certainly have laudable aims, and children raise huge sums of money for important causes.

But, returning to the historical past, my Vichy case study clearly illustrates the vast gap between the haves and have-nots. Such charity was inspired by inequality and depended too upon it. And, more seriously, a regime which sent 11,400 Jewish children to the death camps had evidently decided which children deserved the help that its charity could bring and which – very starkly – did not.

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