Infanticide … in France … pandemic proportions …

    For a few years now I’ve been amazed at how French women kill their newborns. It has become a real infanticide pandemic. I may be wrong but I don’t think that the women of any other country are so into infanticide as are the women of France. French Ministry of Justice archives show […]



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For a few years now I’ve been amazed at how French women kill their newborns. It has become a real infanticide pandemic. I may be wrong but I don’t think that the women of any other country are so into infanticide as are the women of France. French Ministry of Justice archives show that there are between 60 and 100 suspected infanticide cases in France annually. Most of these cases come to light when suspicious hospital staff draws the police’s attention to a patient with gynecology problems that indicate she had recently given birth despite her denials. For various reasons – cost of an investigation being a major one – the hospital’s suspicions do not proceed beyond becoming a statistic in police archives.

I wrote about it for the first time in the summer of 2006.

This is what I wrote:

A respected and respectable French couple – Jean-Louis and Véronique Courjault – living and working in Seoul, South Korea, was being accused by the South Korean authorities of infanticide.

The French shared the indignation of Mr. Courjault, 41, an engineer with an American company in Seoul, and the 40-year-old Mrs. Courjault, at the infanticide accusation. They were back in France, in their town of Chinon, like Bonneuil-Matours where Françoise Laglaine had killed her newborn, on the River Vienne, on vacation. They appeared on television, pale and visibly shaken. How could some “foreigners” accuse two such decent French nationals of having killed two of their newborns and having left the bodies in the family freezer the French asked themselves.

The story was that Mr. Courjault, having been called back to his Seoul office for an urgent meeting, had, on looking for something in the freezer that stood in a small annex to the kitchen of the couple’s luxurious apartment, found two plastic bags, and in them were, as he could see, the bodies of two babies. Suspecting foul play – someone must have left the bodies there knowing he and his wife and their two young sons would be away for a while – he summoned the police. The South Korean police had allowed him to return to France, but not before he had supplied a DNA sample. They already knew that they could obtain Mrs. Courjault’s DNA from a hospital where she had undergone an ablation of the uterus. Quickly, the South Korean police had notified their French counterparts that the two DNA samples matched those of the two dead babies, both boys. One boy had weighed 7.5 lbs (3.4 kilograms) on birth and the other 7.9 (3.5 kilograms). Both were perfectly formed and had been full-term births.

Promptly, the French police arrested the two Courjaults despite that they, and most of their compatriots, continued to accuse the South Koreans of Francophobia, and the Seoul media of indulging in the “lynching” of the couple.

Three months later, the two still free and living in Chinon, Mrs. Courjault broke down under another police interrogation and confessed that she had indeed killed the two babies. She had suffocated them immediately after birth, she said. Her husband, she added, had not known about the births; of course, she had not even told him that she was pregnant.

She had more to admit to the police.

She said that she had already killed one of their newborns before they had gone to live in Seoul. She had done so in 1999, in the village of Villeneuve-la-Comtesse, not far from Chinon. That little body she had burnt in the fireplace of their home and she had buried some charred remains in the garden. She could not remember whether the baby had been a boy or girl.

She was duly charged with three counts of “assassination of a minor under the age of 15” and incarcerated in the prison of the town of Orléans. Under Art. 221-4-1 of the French Penal Code, infanticide is qualified as the “assassination of a minor under the age of 15” and it carries a life sentence. It is an “assassination” and not a “homicide”, because French law makes a distinction between slaying someone in a burst of sudden anger, like a crime passionnel (crime of passion) when a spouse or lover kills an unfaithful partner, and a premeditated taking of life. When there has been no medical supervision during pregnancy, no preparation for the confinement, and the pregnancy was concealed from everyone, even from the father of the child, then, French law declares the slaying as “premeditated.” Thus, the crime becomes an “assassination”, or, as it would be called in the United States of America, “first-degree murder.” Until France abolished the death sentence as a rule, punishment for first-degree murder was death on the guillotine, that of second-degree murder was life imprisonment, though it, too, could have fetched a sentence of capital punishment. (Capital punishment, first practiced in France in the Middle Ages was abolished in 1977. The method of death was the guillotine. The last person to be executed in France was Hamida Djandoubi, executed in September of 1977 for the torture and murder in the city of Marseilles of the 21-year-old Elisabeth Bousquet.) In 2009 Mrs Courjault faced life imprisonment.

Mr. Courjault was briefly taken in for further questioning but was almost immediately released but under contrôle judiciaire sans caution – judicial review without having had to post bail. He was to remain under investigation for the “non-assistance to a person in danger” which under Art. 223-6 of the French Penal Code is a punishable offence that carries a five-year incarceration and a €75,000 ($81,000 – £54,500) fine. At his wife’s trial that began on Tuesday, June 9, 2009 in the town of Tours, 71 miles (114 kilometers) from the prison in Orléons, he told of how, on having heard from the police that she had confessed to them, he had asked her, “You did it?” and she had replied, “Yes. I did it.” Police officers who had been with the couple at that moment, testified that Mr. Courjault had taken his wife in his arms and had hugged her very hard. Both had been in tears.

On Thursday, June 18, late in the evening, Judge Georges Domergue found Mrs. Courjault guilty of the “assassination of a minor under the age of 15” and she was sentenced to eight years incarceration. On being sentenced, she portrayed no emotion. Mr Courjault was found not guilty.

During her trial, Mrs Courjault had told the court, in a voice that was hardly above a whisper, that she had not planned to kill her newborns. She had previously told a psychiatrist appointed by the court to assess her mental state that, after the birth of their second child (born in 1997) she and her husband had decided not to have more children and that she had consequently concealed the three subsequent pregnancies from him. And not only from him. From all in both their families. Even from her sister-in-law, a physician. “As far as I was concerned they were never children,” she had told the psychiatrists. “I could not feel them move inside me. It was just part of myself. An extension of myself that I was killing.”

She was good at concealing her pregnancies. On her wedding day in 1995 she was four months pregnant but only her husband-to-be was aware of that; she had told him only a few weeks previously when he had told her that he would marry her immediately.

“Véronique was always round and she always wore loose dresses and blouses to hide her shapelessness so when she was pregnant she looked just as she always did and there was no way that anyone could tell that she was going to have a baby,” her sister-in-law, the physician told journalists at the trial.

Both the court-appointed psychiatrist and one called in by Mrs. Courjault’s defense team had their own explanation for why she had never accepted and admitted a pregnancy. They had diagnosed her with suffering from “pregnancy denial.” This was, as they claimed, not a crime that should be punished with incarceration: No, it was a mental health issue, a medical condition which should be treated with counseling. There were, they said, women who “lost their heads” on discovering that they were pregnant. They would therefore ignore the biological changes in their body; they would, for example, convince themselves that the nausea they were experiencing in the early mornings was an ordinary stomach upset. Consequently, not pregnant in their minds, they would not prepare a layette and they would certainly not plan for the birth. They would not even allow themselves to think of what they would do on the commencement of their contractions; they would deal with that when it happens. Then, after delivery, they would not think of the newborn as a separate being. No, the baby would be part of themselves, part of their own body and it was for them to do with it as they wished.

The judge wanted to hear nothing of all of this. He said that Mrs. Courjault had killed her three newborns because “She did not want them. She said so on her arrest.”

Mr.Courjault on having heard the lenient sentence, had rushed from the court room to telephone their two teenage sons. “I can tell you there is great joy at home,” he told waiting journalists. He added that he was certain that his wife would be home in “a few months” and that she would be “with her children again. We will be able to reconstruct our family.”

His certainty that his wife would be home “in a few months” is correct. Deducting the years she had spent in prison awaiting trial from the eight years of her sentence, she will probably have to spend less than two years behind bars. (She has since I wrote those words been released.)

The Courjault couple’s compatriots were divided over whether an eight-year sentence was sufficient punishment for having committed murder three times. There were intellectual who agreed with the psychiatrists that committing post-natal infanticide was not a cold-blooded crime but an action committed in a moment of hopelessness and helplessness when the mother is non compus mentis (not of sound mind). Some of them, the most devout amongst them, even thought that as abortion – pre-natal infanticide or feticide – is not a crime in France, post-natal infanticide should not be classified as such either.

Those who did consider post-natal infanticide as a crime argued that the punishment stipulated in Art. 221-4-1 – life imprisonment – should be upheld. They cited the three methods that France has made available to women who did not want a child, but who had not taken precaution not to conceive. They said that France had even legalized abortion so that an unwanted pregnancy could be terminated. Therefore no unwanted child need be born in France in our time and then to be killed.


Now, as I write these words, there is a new case of infanticide here in France.

This infanticide was committed in the town of Louchats, 387 miles (623 kilometers) from Paris and 28 miles (46 kilometers) from Bordeaux by a 35-year-old woman. It was her companion and the father of the newborn who had found the child’s body in a cooler bag which was standing on the floor of the kitchen of the couple’s neat two-story house. That was at 7.30 in the morning. He called the police and they found another four tiny bodies in the freezer. The woman was taken to hospital as she had a gynecology problem having given birth without medical assistance, and also for psychiatric assessment. Her companion, described as shocked and ‘totally beaten down’ was taken into police custody. The woman, still in hospital, will from there go to jail as she has been charged with five counts of “assassination of a minor under the age of 15”. Her companion has been charged with “non-assistance to a person in danger” – failure to render assistance to a person in danger and released under contrôle judiciaire sans caution – judicial review without having had to post bail.

If found guilty the woman faces life imprisonment, while her companion, should he be found guilty, faces five years imprisonment and a fine of €75,000 ($81,000 – £54,500) fine.

The couple are the parents of two teenage daughters.

No doubt, before long we will hear of yet another infanticide case here in France.


Down below I wrote about the first infanticide case of ‘modern-day’ France:

It was a cool morning in 1844: Friday, April 5.

A woman, one Marie Poirier, of the village of Bonneuil-Matours, some 250 miles (402 kms) southeast of Paris and on the River Vienne, was walking across an adjoining wood when she came across another Bonnimatoise, a 24-year-old unmarried woman named Françoise Laglaine. (A female inhabitant of Bonneuil-Matours is called a Bonnimatoise, whereas a male inhabitant is called a Bonnimatoi.)

Françoise, a domestic maid, was sitting on an upturned tree trunk. She appeared in great pain.

“No,” said Françoise when Marie asked her whether she needed assistance.

She was, she said, menstruating and had a rather bad stomach ache, but she could manage.

Marie, who was also a domestic maid, wished Françoise well and continued on her way.

At the end of the day, Marie was again walking through the wood, and approaching the spot where she had that morning come across the suffering Françoise, she saw her two sisters-in-law, farm laborers, standing at the upturned tree trunk. They were looking at something on the ground. As Marie saw when she joined them, the tree trunk was covered in blood and a trail of blood led from it. The three women followed it.

The trail of blood led to a shallow grave. Not actually a grave, but a small heap of soil, twigs and leaves, approximately an inch (2.5 cm) deep.

The three cleared the soil, twigs and leaves away with their bare hands and saw the tiny, naked body of a baby. Common sense telling them that the baby could not be alive, they quickly covered the little body again and set off home.

Three days later, on Monday, April 8, Marie went to knock at the door of the local gendarmerie (militarized police).

Françoise had denied to Marie and the latter’s two sisters-in-law that she had given birth to a baby that she had then killed, but Marie’s Christian Catholic conscience would not allow her to let a human being lie rotting in a wood; the baby, she thought, should have a proper burial.

The baby, a little girl, was 17.72 inches (45 cm) long and hardly weighed half a pound (3 grams). The police surgeon who carried out an autopsy said that judging by her nails and hair, she had been a full-term baby. His study of her lungs showed that she had been born alive but was almost immediately asphyxiated. This might have been done somewhat violently; there were bruises to the little head and the left eye had almost been ripped from its socket. Such injuries might of course have been caused during a rough, unassisted birth, but there was a gaping wound in the baby’s skull and part of her brain was missing. There had therefore been violence.

On Tuesday at 4 a.m. the gendarmes arrested Françoise. She had gone to hide in the wood where she had buried her newborn.

Incarcerated in the prison in the town of Châutelrault, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Bonneuil-Matours and also on the River Vienne, Françoise admitted to the examining magistrate, Judge Jacques Dautriche, that she was the mother of the baby. She said that she had gone into labor at two o’clock of the morning of the fifth and the baby was born eight hours later. She had intended to tell her parents that she was pregnant but before she had had an opportunity to do so, she’d gone into labor; she was no more than seven months pregnant she said.

“The child was not breathing. And she wasn’t moving. I thought she was dead and I buried her,” she told the judge.

About who had fathered her child, Françoise said not a word. That was her legal right, although she, unlettered, might not have known this. In the 19th century it was against French law for a mother of a child, or for the child, or anyone else for that matter, to try to establish or demand the identity of the father of the child. This law has since been amended so that today a woman can go to court to legally establish who had fathered her child, or the child could do so to establish who his or her biological father was, but only if the man in question (his family should he be deceased) consent to provide DNA samples. (Art. 226-25 Law No.2004-800 of 08.06.2004. To establish the genetic characteristics of an individual for purposes other than medical or scientific research without having procured the consent of the individual under Art. 16/10 of the Civil Code, is punishable with a 12-month incarceration and a €15,000 ($22,000) fine.)

But back in 1896, the French senator, Paul Strauss, had already spoken out about such an injustice. Commenting on another infanticide case, he had said: “Where is the seducer, the cause of the pregnancy? Why isn’t he with the accused? If the seduced girl has obviously violated the laws of nature and of humanity …the fault is especially with the one who has abused her weakness and tenderness… The seducer remains unknown… Responsibility belongs to both.” (Paul Strauss was born on September 23, 1852 in Ronchamp, Haute-Sâone, France. He was elected to the French Senate in 1897 and was appointed Minister – Secretary of State – to Hygiene and Social Security Provisions in 1922, a position he held for two years. He was a champion of the sick and the poor, and pregnant single deserted women and abandoned children. He wrote numerous books about poverty and lack of social services in France.)

On Monday, April 29, Françoise was transferred to the town of Poitiers, the prefectural capital of the region (Poitou-Charente), some 15 miles (24 kilometers) away, and was incarcerated in the local prison to await her trial. Her first court appearance was on Tuesday, May 14 when witnesses from her village testified to her “loose morals.” The court was adjourned until Friday, May 24. On that day she was acquitted.

The young woman’s acquittal was not unusual. Whereas in the Middle Ages women who killed their newborns were burnt at the stake as witches, in mid-19th century France mothers committing infanticide had become such a regular occurrence that doctors had suggested that infanticide should not be considered a crime. It had not however occurred to the doctors to qualify infanticide as a puerperal insanity act. It was simply something that happened; the people were poor and a baby was an extra mouth to feed.

The French Christian economist and anti-bourgeois, Eugène Buret, wrote of the poor of Paris – the Paris of Victor Hugo’s time: “If you make your way into the old districts …wherever you go you will see men and women branded with the marks of vice and destitution, half-naked children rotting in filth and stifling in airless, lightless dens. Here in the very home of civilization, you will encounter thousands … reduced by sheer besottedness to a life of savagery; here you will perceive destitution in a guise so horrible …that it inspires disgust and horror, or it assaults all the senses at once ….” (Eugène Buret (1810-1842) is said to have inspired Karl Marx.) (Victor Hugo, French author and human rights activist (1802-1885). His Les Misérables was published in Paris in 1862.)

Therefore, Françoise, a penniless domestic maid, was considered a poor miserable and after the seven weeks of her incarceration awaiting trial and her acquittal, she returned home to Bonneuil-Matours.

She had not cut open her baby’s head and had not eaten part of the little girl’s brain. This was what she said and it was assumed that was she was speaking the truth despite that women at that time did believe that if they ate the newborn’s brains, God would take pity on them and forgive them their sin. As the police surgeon was unable to establish whether this was indeed what had happened in the case of Françoise, he suggested that a stray dog or some other animal had probably fed off the little corpse.

There were to be many more infanticide cases where the murderous mother was to be acquitted. From the time of Françoise’s acquittal to the end of the 19th century the rate of acquittal was 38%, then in the first years of the 20th century the rate of acquittal rose to 50 percent. The judges always found extenuating circumstances. They would describe the women as poor; she had been abandoned by her lover; she was single or she was married and the father of the child was not her husband; her employer – perhaps he was a farmer or a teacher or lawyer, even the priest in her parish – had raped her and to have the child would have meant dismissal which in turn would have meant destitution for her and her child. But almost never would they find the women cold-blooded killers, describe them, for example, as having killed their newborns for egotistical reasons, that the woman was a music hall artiste (entertainer like a dancer) or a circus acrobat, perhaps a prostitute, and pregnancy would have disfigured her, or that she was a “bad” woman, one who just wanted to enjoy herself – sleep with men – without accepting the responsibility of a resulting pregnancy. No, always would they say that she had killed her newborn because of the hopelessness of the misery of her personal circumstances – her poverty or the abandonment of her lover. And never, as the 20th century progressed, would a judge have acquitted a murderous mother because he believed that she had killed her newborn because she had temporarily become a déséquilibrée (mentally unstable). There was however ambiguity in how the French courts judged infanticide because not only was infanticide a crime punishable by death, but so too was concealing a birth. It was only in 1901 during the French Third Republic that the death penalty for infanticide was abolished. It remains so. (The French Third Republic dated from Sept 4 1870 until June 22 1940. In 1870 France’s population totaled 35,565,800.)

We are currently in France’s Fifth Republic which was introduced on October 4, 1958.


Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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