Through the history of our children, it is indeed our own history of France that we can explore, at the height of a child. This is the bet taken by the historian Éric Alary (1), a disciple of René Rémond, known for his work on the social history of the French in the XXand century. Very concrete, the work is stretched by a suggestive red thread. In the beginning, and perhaps since the dawn of time, the child was almost an object, rarely desired, subject to an infernal infant mortality. And then, since the 1960s, he has become a “personified being”, a real subject of law, both protected and a commercial target.
This path towards the child-king, Éric Alary retraces it with many examples through the convulsions of our history. At the end of the 19thand century, the scarcity of birth control coupled with high infant mortality dampened the attachment of parents to their children. Those who survived were often seen as either productive arms or mouths to feed, their place in society precarious. They were entirely subject to paternal authority, and, for the majority, immersed very early in the adult and professional world.
The IIIand Republic, wanting to forge future citizens and soldiers from childhood, insisted on the imperative of public hygiene, imposing “cleanliness visits” in schools, now compulsory, going so far as to recall the need to change and wash babies . The petty bourgeois were quickly withdrawn from the free world of childhood, trained for their future responsibilities, while petty peasants and workers worked very early.
The Great War was to mark a break: the fathers suddenly disappeared, often forever. Between the two wars, it took “keeping accounts of the living and the dead”, with no less than a million orphans. State and Churches then multiplied the places of socialization, in particular scouting and summer camps. Alas, the dark years of the Second World War killed more children than 14-18, through six years of persecutions, deportations, bombardments, food shortages and restrictions. Éric Alary recalls how the exodus of May-June 1940 marked a generation: 90,000 children lost their parents there…
Then were born, en masse, the “children of happiness”, those of the postwar boom, of the consumption promised to all… With – already – compulsory vaccination and its considerable benefits in the face of infant mortality, which was still lurking… Until today, where the child, necessarily desired, has become both the pivot and the cement of a couple itself weakened by the diversification of family models. Became “chief negotiator”the child chosen and pampered “is no longer next to the adults: he counts as much as them”, notes the author.