Tag Archive: France

On 3rd September 2015, we held a workshop about the use of children to represent the future at King’s College London. Here, Helen Roche gives a full report on the event.

By Helen Roche, Research Fellow, University of Cambridge

Does it matter if adults use children for their own ends – especially in politics?

Is the instrumentalisation of children by grownups (past, present and future) always fundamentally exploitative?

Should we care? And if so, how might we help?

These were some of the questions which a workshop held recently at King’s College London, entitled ‘Children’s Burden or Benefit: Using young people to promote ideas of the future’ set out to answer.

Wellcome Library, London

Given that I’m currently writing a history of the most prominent Nazi elite schools, the Napolas, the title of the workshop caught my eye as soon as it was advertised. For the former Napola-pupils with whom I have been working and conducting interviews over the past few years, the pressure and responsibility of living up to the ideals of the National Socialist regime, and of proving oneself worthy of having been selected as a putative future leader of the Third Reich, have often been immense. So, although the researchers running the project – Laura King, Vicky Crewe and Lindsey Dodd – were primarily focusing on the history of childhood in Britain and France, the potential parallels and insights which they could provide for comparison with the German case seemed fascinating, even just from a quick look at their project website.

Part of an AHRC-funded project supported by the History & Policy initiative, their research focuses on children as ‘agents of future promise’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and France. Building on this foundation, the workshop aimed to explore the ways in which children are often forced to bear the burden of adults’ expectations, particularly when they are used collectively to promote visions of a brighter political or social future.

The idea of a “workshop” might conjure up visions of the usual smattering of academic papers with a predominantly historical focus – just another word, in fact, for a miniature one-day conference. Instead, those attending were presented with a veritable smorgasbord of insights, not only from the historians involved in the project, but also from representatives of children’s charities (War ChildPlan International) and campaign groups (Let Toys be Toys). The day was brilliantly structured so as to allow plenty of time for discussion, which so often gets short-changed or hijacked at academic conferences – so, participants were encouraged to debate and reflect upon the key questions raised by the presentations, not only after each speaker had given their paper, but also in small groups throughout the day.

The day began with a brief introduction by Laura King, the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project’s principal investigator. She established a theoretical framework for thinking about the various presentations which we were going to hear, touching on contemporary debates which represent childhood as a social construction whose definition is constantly changing.

I for Image

From the Abécédaire du Maréchal Pétain (Bureau de documentation du Chef d’Etat, 1943), author’s collection

Historically – or even in the present day – there often exists a tension between defining children wholly according to their current, often highly dependent, ‘child’ status (their ‘being’) – or defining them according to expectations of what they may achieve as future adults (their ‘becoming’). And yet, if we only see children in terms of what they may one day become, do we too easily lose sight of them as actors in the present? And if some children, such as the offspring of asylum-seekers, are assumed to be less good ‘investments’ for the future than others, what detrimental impact may that assumption have on policy in the present?

We were then treated to Laura’s own paper, entitled ‘How were children mobilised to represent the future in World War II Britain?’ Using a variety of sources, including newspapers, documentary films, parliamentary reports and election materials, Laura’s research showed that anxieties about children’s health and safety, in the context of rationing and the wartime evacuation programme, meant that children were more actively invoked in British politics during the Second World War than ever before. These were, after all, the ‘citizens of the future’, and as such, needed to be protected and fostered, both mentally and physically. This rhetoric of ‘investment’ in the nation’s children in order to secure Britain’s future was seized upon by an amazingly diverse range of politicians and organisations – from Labour MPs to Churchill himself; from children’s charities such as the NSPCC to margarine manufacturers, or even the Norwich Union insurance company – whose advertising slogans during this period included ‘The leaders of tomorrow are amongst the children of today!’ Whether in terms of advertising, fundraising, or political grandstanding, such visions of childhood provided a cogent economic rationale for spending on children, in a way which seemed to transcend the usual political or social boundaries.

We then moved on to Lindsey Dodd‘s paper, ‘How did the Vichy Government in World War II France involve children in the pursuit of its goals?’ Drawing mainly on material from the French National Archives, Lindsey’s research examines the ways in which the Pétainist regime not only instrumentalised children, but allowed them to become political agents in their own right. Whereas children are often defined in terms of lack, incompetence, irrationality, and dependence – in short, as non-adults, or as projects rather than people – she argued that Vichy France in some sense empowered not only women, but children too, allowing them to participate in, and even influence, the life of the polity (even if, in terms of the Pétainist battle for births, ‘having children’ was still ultimately prioritised over ‘being children’).

Just as in wartime Britain, children were portrayed as symbols of ‘restoration’ and ‘the rebirth of hope’. However, in propaganda terms, the Vichy regime saw children as miniature ‘Trojan horses’ who could pass Pétainist values on to their families, reeducating those adults who were still tainted by their decadent prewar past, and setting them a good example. Children were encouraged to earn money to send to the Vichy national charity, or to send Marshal Pétain Christmas surprises, such as a drawing of the part of France which they loved most, in order to ‘bring a smile to his face’ (the government received over two million of these!). More questionably, they were also invited to denounce or ostracise any of their peers who refused to cooperate with the regime’s ‘Loyalty Leagues’, which had been founded to abolish cheating and oppositional behaviour in schools. Every child who wrote a letter to Pétain received a reply, which sometimes led to long-standing correspondence, and which generally contributed to children’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to the regime, as well as their engagement with its policies. These, then, Lindsey argues, were truly child citizens, who sought to fulfil the regime’s confidence in their social influence, in as far as this was possible – even if, ultimately, they could only offer Pétain ‘some of my green beans which I’ve saved’, or a drawing of a squirrel.

In the second session, two practitioners, Matt Ruuska from War Child UK, and Kerry Smith from Plan International, took the floor. Both charities’ representatives focused upon the absolute necessity of children becoming ‘stakeholders’ in their own development (a welcome reversal of the adult-centered investment rhetoric which we had encountered previously?). While Kerry highlighted Plan International’s ‘Because I am a girl…I’ll take it from here’ campaign, which aims to eradicate underage marriage, FGM, and other types of female inequality and persecution, particularly in education, Matt concentrated upon the measures which War Child takes to empower the children whose voices they champion. Above all, the charity believes that children should never be portrayed as helpless victims, and that their stories should under no circumstances be criminalised, sensationalised or trivialised. War Child helps children who have suffered terribly, yet survived, to learn what it means to speak out and articulate their human rights, yet without compromising their need for privacy. In one series of cartoon videos which the charity has created in order to persuade runaway children in Afghanistan (and beyond) that they can turn to War Child for aid, most of the animation had been completed by the charity’s protégés themselves. But the most harrowing promotional video of all – one which had apparently moved hardened charity employees to tears when it was first shown – is ‘Duty of Care’ – a Call of Duty-style videogame simulation, which brings to horrific life the trauma and anguish visited upon children in any warzone. Watch it: I guarantee that it will change your perspective within two-and-a-half minutes.

The third session focused on toys – past and present. Vicky Crewe‘s paper, ‘What do toys tell us about children’s roles in the British Empire in the wake of the Second Boer War (1899-1902)?’, explored how toys and games can be used to influence children’s national identification, encouraging them both to empathise with their country’s war effort in the present, and giving them an appetite for war later in life. Toy soldiers, Boer-War-themed games such as ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’ or ‘The Pretoria Bomb’, and even clockwork armoured trains (advertised in toy catalogues as ‘the novelty of the season!’), all helped to make children more enamoured of the war. Meanwhile, prizes such as knives and pens were offered to children if they sent letters to the troops, or solved war-related puzzles. One nine-year-old Irish boy clearly demonstrated the efficacy of this type of indoctrination when he demanded to be allowed to join up and fight straight away. On the other hand, girls’ magazines such as the Girl’s Own Paper contained far less war-related advertising than their male counterparts – and, when the war was mentioned, the focus was firmly placed upon quintessentially feminine activities such as fundraising and letter-writing – or simply upon stoic endurance whilst waiting for one’s menfolk to return.

That such gendered advertising is not only far from being a thing of the past, but that in recent years it has reached undreamed of heights (or should that be depths?) was amply proved by Jess Day’s presentation on ‘Gender training: What are toys and toy adverts teaching children about what it means to be a boy or girl?’ Jess is part of a grassroots media campaign called Let Toys be Toys, which is gradually gaining ever more momentum. Their raison d’être is quite simple – to persuade toy companies and retailers that there is no need to present their wares in a gender-segregated fashion, with hoardings over the aisles in Toys”R”Us, Boots or Centre Parks, bearing legends such as “Gifts for Boys”, “justboys” and “justgirls”. While any toy that has anything to do with construction, science, locomotion – or even just toy animals – is commonly marketed as “Boys’ Stuff”, girls are left with cosmetics, toiletries, and pink tat – the most egregious example of all three categories combined being a “Hello Kitty Beauty Spa”.

This segregation and “pinkification”, which is now prevalent at all levels of the toy industry, has also made its way into book marketing, and has even gone so far as to infect a certain brand of antenatal scans – half of which bear the legend “Future Athlete” (blue, with rugby ball branding), the other “Future Diva” (you guessed it: pink, with flowers)… Yes, targeted merchandise begins to be directed at children before they have even left the womb.

Depressingly, wordles from the achilleseffect.com website which focused on the toy industry’s gendered marketing language showed that many of the most popular words aimed at girls included “fashion”, “style”, “glam”, “nails”, “perfect”, and so forth, while boys were bombarded with words such as “battle”, “action”, “power”, “attack”, and “beat” (with “friends” hiding away, shamefacedly, in one corner). What could be more calculated to bear out the result of a recent Girl Guiding survey, which found that 87% of girls think that women are judged more on their appearance than their ability? Maybe the truth behind that old Mitchell and Webb skit on gendered advertising is more worrying than we realised…

The negative effect of all this on children who do not fit the industry’s stereotypes should not be underestimated, for all that it bears little comparison with the wartime hardships depicted by the charity representatives. One small girl was almost reduced to collapse after suffering endless teasing at school for her “boyish” clothes and pastimes – and then finding that even the naming of the aisles in her local toyshop deemed her enthusiasm for construction toys to be unnatural. Meanwhile, boys are finding themselves hamstrung by negative stereotypes, particularly about their supposed academic inferiority. A recently-commissioned report on boys’ reading habits found that 18% of boys and 12% of girls think that it is “girly” to read any book at all, and 19% of boys admitted that they would be embarrassed if they thought that a friend had seen them reading. The effect of such stereotyping also has a negative impact on imagined career choices: the medic-themed toys which Jess Day’s own daughter played with, which habitually portrayed men as doctors and women as mere nurses, had a greater hold on her young imagination than did her own lived reality, in which most of the doctors she had ever encountered had been female. Meanwhile, boys are brought up to believe that a career in the caring professions must be a de factoimpossibility. A pitiful list compiled by a class of 9-year-old Canadian boys under the heading “What I don’t like about being a boy” ran as follows:


Jess stressed that, by “not being able to be a mother”, the boys didn’t mean not being able physically to give birth, but merely not being able to be a hands-on father – the idea that men could be engaged parents was basically unthinkable for them.

As a little girl who utterly despised dolls (favouring teddy-bears, or even teddy-leopards!), who loved playing with model railways, Meccano, and toy swords (as well as fashioning heraldic shields out of Ready Brek boxes), and who plastered her bedroom walls and boarding-school pinboards with posters of steam trains – as opposed to the usual fare of ponies, fluffy animals or Leonardo di Caprio – I couldn’t sympathise more with the valiant work that Jess and the Let Toys be Toys team are doing. The idea that the vitality of any child’s imagination – or even ambition – should be curbed and sapped by the “pinkification” strategies dictated by the collective will of corporate marketing machines is highly distressing – and yet it happens every day, all over the world.

To conclude, then: All too often, seeking to join research and policy at the hip, or bringing practitioners and academics together, can seem rather forced – easily discernible as a piece of “outreach” that has merely been designed to tick the appropriate box on a funding application form, rather than being either a joy or a necessity. However, this workshop proved absolutely that, when done well, such initiatives can have true value and real impact – it provided the best kind of model for how dialogue can and should be fostered between academia and the wider world (perhaps it even encouraged us to erase that very dichotomy from our minds!).

In conclusion, Laura, Lindsey, Vicky, and the History and Policy team should all be congratulated for pulling together a programme which surely has to rank as one of the most enjoyable workshops or conferences I have ever attended. The day was full of unique insights, surprises – and, above all, fruitful opportunities to broaden one’s perspectives beyond the purely historical.

Dodd picture (118x150)

Interested in these topics? Think about attending our workshop on 3 September 2015 in London.

By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Composite image of 1940s children in an archive

Ghostly children in the archives [composite image: corridor of the National Archives superimposed with image of children; both images cleared for non-commercial use with modification]

Some of the historical documents I’m using for my research are letters written by children to Marshal Pétain, the Head of the French State during the Vichy years. As my previous blogs have shown, Pétain’s regime made vigorous use of pre-adolescent children as both the objects and subjects of its propaganda; that is, there was a lot of propaganda about children as the future of France, and a lot of propaganda for children. Many were drawn into letter-writing campaigns to Marshal Pétain, but others wrote to him of their own volition. In a country where families were divided and many fathers were absent (as prisoners-of-war or forced labourers in Germany, or in hiding, perhaps) writing to Pétain may have provided some comfort. His office always replied in his name with a personalised response and often a gift; some children replied to this response, and a dialogue was established. As I have shown, many letters glorified the Marshal; others vaunted the right-wing, nationalistic values of the regime. And these letters were written by children, some as young as six.

The response when I explain this to people – friends, colleagues – is usually disgust: that the regime could coerce or manipulate children in this way is further proof – were any needed – of its baseness. Why is our moral outrage more exercised when children are invoked? Isn’t the corruption of adults – the decision-makers in society – of greater cause for concern? Don’t all societies manipulate children to embrace certain ideological principles? And is this just a story of simple manipulation: what choices did children make?

These questions set me thinking about historical research using primary sources created by children.

Doing this research on children in the past has revealed them to me as social actors in their own right. The idea of a child as passive, as a pawn, as simply vulnerable to adult machinations is a useful trope with a ‘common sense’ underpinning. Yet social scientists and some policymakers recognise children as ‘heterogeneous, active agents, playing out and shaping their lives’ and as ‘competent individuals – knowledgeable about their own experiences and situations’. While this values children’s production – their words and cultural outputs – it could also suggest that such production can be treated in the same way as adults’. But while children are competent social actors in the world, their worlds are different – not inferior – to adults’. They lack the accumulation of knowledge and experience of the adults around them, as Owain Jones has written, but ‘have fully blown imaginative, social lives’. They loved Pétain, they entered into an epistolary relationship with him, they received gifts of date jam and writing-paper, they responded with pictures and affirmations of loyalty, pride and obedience. What Pétainists they were! But were they? They cannot bear the same moral responsibility as adults; they did not shape policy; their views went unheeded. What did they think when their hero fell from grace in 1944?

All sorts of ethical regulations govern academic research involving children; but children in the archive are not afforded the same consideration. For social scientists conducting research on ‘live’ children, key ethical issues concern access, consent and confidentiality. While certain archival documents pertaining to children in the past may be embargoed if the archivist considers them particularly sensitive, in other cases access to children in the archive is governed by no formal constraints save the standard fifty or seventy year rule. And if you were seven when you wrote your letter to Marshal Pétain, the chances are you’re still alive. Whence the issue of confidentiality: should historians be more careful about anonymising children in the archive? If the documents are in the public domain anyway, is there any point? Certainly, no consent has been given by the child or child-now-adult to use their letter; indeed, as Carolyn Steedman has noted, ‘the historian will always read that which was never intended for his or her eyes’. Perhaps an adult writing to the mayor of his or her town might imagine that a record of the letter, or the letter itself, might be filed away somewhere. But could a child have imagined that a letter, a drawing, would end up in a national, public archive, kept forever? Archives contain snapshots of the past, of people ‘frozen in time’ as children. They had no power or control over the archiving of their words, and now have none over their use.

Finally, I have been thinking about what Owain Jones has called the ‘otherness’ of children and its ‘unknowableness’ – and beyond that, something of the epistemological conundrum of the evidence I find. Children’s worlds, Jones writes, ‘are irretrievably lost to adults’. So while I can read the letters, see what children said and what they did, I can never know what they felt or meant by doing it. When a child wrote ‘Vive Pétain!’ what did that mean? What did she feel at that moment? Not only is there an unbridgeable gap between the child and the adult, there is another between the archive reading room, and the Vichy-era living room, bedroom or schoolroom where the letter was written. The moment the source was created is irretrievably lost. Did her mother stand over her as she wrote? Did her brother write a letter alongside? Was she in her bedroom, alone, later pilfering a stamp from the sideboard to post the letter? Did she write it because all her friends were writing too, or was she a lone voice among her schoolmates? I imagine that child’s act, in a particular place and time. I cannot know it: I try to make this silence speak, but it will not. I can surmise, narrativise, imagine and empathise. I cannot know.

How many contemporary historians want to ‘do justice’ to a Pétainist? Yet I do feel that sense of obligation to these unwittingly-archived children which Steedman described as part of the frenzy of her archive fever. I want it to be recognised that they had loved Pétain, but that was in the past; it belonged to childhood and was comprehensible in the historical context. I want it to be recognised that there was coercion and manipulation, but there was not only that: there was the excitement of writing to a celebrity, to a hero – and getting a response. I want it to be recognised that these children were competent and creative actors, and Pétain was an important part of their social world.

Further reading

Hopkins, P. E. and Bell, N., ‘Interdisciplinary perspectives: ethical issues and child research’, Children’s Geographies, 6:1 (2008), 1-6

Jones, O., ‘“Before the dark of reason:” some ethical and epistemological considerations on the otherness of children’, Ethics, Place and Environment: a Journal of Philosophy and Geography, 4:2 (2001), 173-8

Mills, S., ‘Young ghosts:  ethical and methodological research in children’s geographies’, Children’s Geographies, 10.3 (2012), 357-63

Steedmman, C., Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester University Press & Rutgers University Press, 2001)


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

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

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

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.

Read other posts about Agents of Future Promise.

Join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #children2015 – we’d love to hear from you.

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.

Join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #children2015 – we’d love to hear from you.

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

The conservative, authoritarian Vichy government, headed by the octogenarian Marshal Pétain, saw in the defeat of France in 1940 an opportunity for national regeneration. Under the slogan ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’, it pumped out propaganda in pursuit of its goals. Children were explicitly targeted. They were to become the carriers of the regime’s ideologies which would prolong its existence and embed the ideals of the National Revolution. Leadership, national unity and population increase were high on the agenda.

Pre-adolescent children were singled out by Pétain as a special concern. He addressed them in a speech in October 1941:

You need to know that I am counting on you absolutely to help me reconstruct France, to make the French a great people, loyal and honest. And I do not want to wait until you’ve become grown-ups to ask you to do it.

Children’s value was in the future loyal population that they would become, and their love and support for Pétain now, as children, would cement this.

But their role in the National Revolution extended beyond that. They were asked by the government to participate in charitable and fundraising initiatives, always in Pétain’s name. While raising money for needy sections of the population was vital, it also served the regime, which was desperately trying to unite a nation divided by the German occupation as well as by ideals, economics and persecution. The Ministry of Information’s Youth Section explained its aims for Christmas 1942:

We will give the under 15s an opportunity to act in favour of others and thus allow them to show their love for the Maréchal. It is, of course, among the very youngest that this love maintains most of its purity. It is possible that a demonstration of this feeling could have an important influence inside families and even on the country as a whole. This would be an example of solidarity in action which would be easy to use in more general propaganda at Christmas time.

It seems from the thousands of letters and the millions of francs raised by children that they threw themselves wholeheartedly into this activity, wittingly or unwittingly propagating the regime’s ideologies. The sincerity of some letters is touching, as children donated their birthday money or their meagre savings to try to heal the wounds created by war and division.

‘A good peasant family’ – photograph in propaganda magazine l’Espoir Français (1943/4)

Not just the objects of the regime’s propaganda, children were also its subjects. The mass of children often photographed surrounding Pétain on his walkabouts represented the population increase so central to the regime’s family policy as well as loyalty to the chef or leader. Other images of children were aimed at potential – or existing – mothers and fathers to inspire them to grow their families and to devote themselves to building the next generation. ‘If you don’t have children, who knows? You could be denying the world of another Pascal, a Pasteur, a Lyautey, through your own selfishness,’ one Mother’s Day leaflet commented.

A different set of images of children were reflected back at children, as on the cover of Paluel-Marmont’s Winter Aid 1941 edition of his book Il était une fois un Maréchal de France (Once upon a time there was a Marshal of France), shown above. Here are pictures of children, in propaganda for children, encouraging children to raise money for children.

This case study provides clear examples of the way that children are used as vehicles for political ideologies, as the objects and subjects of propaganda, and their responses to it. They are mobilised because of their vulnerability and because of their potentiality, two qualities which continue to define our view of children in society today. There is a danger that in focusing on these qualities to the exclusion of others, we risk undermining the reality of childhoods lived. Children do embody a future potential, but to concentrate on that at the expense of their here-and-now existence, or to use that potential to shape and reshape society on ideological grounds, is a concern. And children are, of course, vulnerable, but to exploit that vulnerability for commercial or political gain is deplorable, if sadly common.


Notes and further reading

Read Marshal Pétain’s speech to French schoolchildren of 13 October 1941.

Extracts from Ministry of Information and Mother’s Day leaflet taken from the Archives Nationales, F41/293 and 19760145/145


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You can find out more about the project by reading other posts about Agents of Future Promise

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

Rapidly defeated in 1940 by the German army, France was divided and occupied by its conquerors until its liberation in 1944. The new French government was presided over by the authoritarian Marshal Pétain, much-loved hero of the Great War, around whom developed a cult of personality. Named after the spa town of Vichy where it sat, this government began to enact what became known as the National Revolution: a conservative project for French regeneration.

I for Image

From the Abécédaire du Maréchal Pétain (Bureau de documentation du Chef d’Etat, 1943), author’s collection

French children were the subjects and objects of the Vichy government’s propaganda, and the regime actively sought their participation in its policies. How did they respond?

Oh, how he helps us! Oh! Victor of two wars, great comfort of France, I hope you live for many years to come and help the French people who have loved you so much. Yes, I love Monsieur le Maréchal Pétain very much. I love him because he saved us, because he deserves to be loved. And he will be loved until the end by the French people who would give their lives for Maréchal Pétain.

So wrote a 12 year old French girl in an essay about the head of the French State in 1941. This outpouring of affection should be seen as more than a mechanical parroting of the party line. Her work forms part of a body of children’s essays and letters which show us some of their responses to the Vichy regime. Essay-writing was obviously coordinated by adults, as was much letter writing; but many children wrote often and spontaneously to a man they were led to regard as a father or grandfather.

My case study in the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project examines the way that the Vichy regime used children as the objects and subjects of its propaganda. For, as Judith Proud wrote, ‘the importance of the child as propaganda target and ideological icon is fundamental’. The two dimensions are worth exploring. Officials assumed that children would act in response to the its propaganda, that they had agency and could act to alter their behaviour and environment.

This highlights a number of issues relating to the way adults manipulate children for ideological purposes, and raises three key questions: how images of children are used, how the idea of what ‘a child’ is gets mobilised, and how children as real people – rather than images or ideas – are manipulated. While the Vichy regime had very particular (authoritarian, exclusionary, traditionalist, Catholic, pronatalist) characteristics, it provides a clear example of the process of instrumentalisation which is recognisable in other contexts, and not just in the past.

Read other posts about Agents of Future Promise.

Join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #children2015 – we’d love to hear from you.

Notes and further reading:

Extract from 12 year old girl’s essay about Marshal Pétain (2 Dec. 1941) taken from Archives Nationales, F/41/269.

W. D. Halls, The Youth of Vichy France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. See pages 14 and 15 for his comments about the way that were ‘taken in’ by Pétainist propaganda as they were forced to write essays and letters that praised the leader and speak positively of his reforms.

J. Proud, Children and propaganda (Bristol: Intellect Books, 1995)