Infanticide is a crime no one living in France can commit. It is a crime that does not exist: page through the French Penal Code and you won't even find the word. Yet, mothers killing their newborn babies is a French phenomenon.
It is just that the French call infanticide by another name: under Art. 221-4-1 of the Penal Code it is qualified as the "assassination of a minor under the age of 15." It is an "assassination" and not a "murder." French law makes a distinction between ordinary murder – killing in a burst of sudden anger, like a crime passionnel when a spouse kills an unfaithful partner – and premeditated murder or, as in the United States, first-degree murder. The latter is designated an assassinat – an assassination, whereas the other is a meurtre - murder.
Until France abolished the death sentence in 1977, as a rule, punishment for assassination was the guillotine; that of murder was life imprisonment – or perpète in French, underworld slang – though it, too, could have fetched a sentence of capital punishment.
There are, according to legal statistics, between 60 and 100 infanticide cases in France annually. Most do not grab media attention, yet at present (September 2007) five such cases are drawing intensive press coverage, thus revealing that infanticide is a very real problem in France. One of the cases, that of a woman named Véronique Courjault, now awaiting trial for assassination, has allegedly inspired novelist Mazarine Pingeot, love-child of the late President François Mitterrand and Museum Curator Anne Pingeot, to tackle this distressing fact in her new novel, Le Cimetière des poupées - The Cemetery of the Dolls. The novel is No. 1 on the best-seller' s charts amid strong denial from Pingeot, who is expecting her second child, that she has drawn inspiration from the "Babes in the Freezer" case, as the Courjault case is known here. According to Pingeot, she followed all the current French infanticide cases in order to try to understand why a mother would kill a child she had carried in her womb for nine months. The novel is written in the voice of such a murderous mother who tries to explain her act to her husband in letters she writes from the cell where she is awaiting trial.
The writing career of Mazarine Pingeot, 33, has enjoyed ups and downs. Le Cimetière des poupées is her fourth novel and fifth book. Her first novel, Premier Roman (1998) sold 60,000 copies, whereas sales dropped to 12,000 for the second and third. Her autobiography Bouche Cousue however sold 200,000. The late President Mitterrand successfully concealed her existence until a French magazine ran a cover story on her in 1992. Journalists had, though, been aware of her existence almost since her birth in 1974. She shares her life with the Moroccan-born Mohamed Ulad-Mohand, 41, a movie producer.
The Five Cases
Véronique Courjault, 40, and her 41-year-old engineer husband, Jean-Louis, hail from the town of Chinon, on the River Vienne, 177 miles south of Paris. In Chinon, its population of 8,000 live in clusters of 15th and 16th century houses with grey-slated roofs. Over the roofs tower the ruins of France's oldest fortified castle, the Chateau of Chinon. It was there in the town of Chinon that Joan of Arc first told King Charles VII that visions and voices had sent her to him and that God will aid him and his kingdom in the battle against the English.
The Courjaults were known as quiet, decent people: the only time a member of the family had perhaps drawn attention was when Véronique Fièvre dressed in black from head to toe, in 1995, to marry Jean and Geneviève Courjault's son Jean-Louis. What the villagers did not know was that the bride wore black because she was pregnant and she hoped that the dark color would hide her rounded stomach.
For the first few years of their marriage, Jean-Louis and Véronique lived in Villeneuve-la- Comtesse, a village of 700 rural souls, not far from Chinon. The couple, parents of a son named Jules, appeared to welcome the birth of a second son, Nicolas, within a year. Then Jean-Louis, an engineer, lost his job and, as Véronique was a housemother, also with no income, a doom settled over the Courjault household. Then, in 1999, the four set off for Seoul, South Korea where Jean-Louis took up a job with a car parts manufacturer.
At his work, the bespectacled Jean-Louis was highly regarded; Véronique, short, dark-haired and rather plain, was known as a shy but polite member of the local French community: she worked as an auxiliary teacher at a kindergarten for the children of French ex-pats. She enjoyed the reputation of being an excellent teacher and colleague: all also said that she was an exemplary mother to the couple's two sons, 9 and 11 respectively.
In June of 2006, the four Courjaults returned to France on vacation. Jean-Louis, however, had to rush back from Chinon to Seoul to resolve a crisis at his office. Back at the family's luxurious Seoul apartment, he opened the family freezer and nearly fainted. Running to the apartment building's concierge, he babbled something about the bodies of two babies in the freezer. The supervisor followed him up to the apartment and, yes, in the freezer, wrapped in plastic bags, were the bodies of two babies. The South Korean police allowed the greatly shocked Jean-Louis to return to France, but not before he had supplied a DNA sample. They already knew that they could obtain Véronique's DNA from a hospital where she had undergone an ablation of the uterus (this procedure makes a woman unable to bear children without having to remove the womb). Both the DNA samples matched those of the two dead newborns: they were perfectly-formed boys born in 2002 and 2003, weighing 7.5 lbs and 7.9 lbs.
In France, the "Babes in the Freezer" story very quickly hit the headlines. Véronique and Jean-Louis denied that they were the parents of the two murdered babies and, giving "South Korean media lynching" as reason, they refused to return to Seoul. The French public seemed as outraged at the allegations that the respectable couple could have committed such an atrocious crime. French police meanwhile carried out their own DNA tests and theirs confirmed that of the South Korean's.
Promptly arrested, the couple still vehemently denied having killed the two newborns; they did not, they said, even have any knowledge of their presence in their freezer. It took Véronique three months to break down and confess: She said that she suffocated the babies immediately after birth. She had apparently successfully hidden the pregnancies from her husband and had given birth all alone in the bathroom. She had, as she was to confess next, already killed a newborn. That was back in 1999 in sleepy, rural Villeneuve-la- Comtesse. On that occasion she had also suffocated the baby on birth, but she had burnt that little body: She had done so in the fireplace in the family home and buried the charred remains in the garden. Police started to dig and found the remains.
France never extradites one of her nationals and therefore Véronique is to stand trial in France. Jean-Louis, though, was released sous contrôle judiciaire sans caution – under control order. The police believe that he was unaware of what he's wife had done. While he waits for her case to come to court (as the French legal process is slow, this will only be in the latter part of 2008), he lives at a secret address: the couple's two sons, described as "traumatized, " live with him. Both the Fièvre and Courjault families are supporting him, and so they do Véronique. Mrs. Geneviève Courjault, Jean-Louis's mother, quite indignant, has written to author Pingeot to complain about her novel, and in Chinon, a petition has been drawn up to have the novel, published by Editions Julliard of Paris, withdrawn. So far 200 have signed the petition; not many, certainly, but as Mrs. Marie-Françoise Canal of Chinon says: "The Courjault family is very highly regarded here and they have suffered enough. We are also considering Jean-Louis and Véronique's two boys – they must be protected." Jean-Louis's father recently died; according to the man's widow, he died from a broken heart caused by the tragedy that had hit the family.
The first of the remaining four cases from which Pingeot could have drawn inspiration for her novel, came to light at the same time as the Courjault case.
This is the case of a 39-year-old woman identified only as "a woman from Toulouse." Toulouse is no backwater. Four hundred and thirty-three miles from Paris and only 200 from the Spanish city of Barcelona, it has a population of almost half a million which makes it France's fourth most populous city.
This infanticide was committed in 2004. The woman, already the mother of four children of whom the eldest was her 15-year-old daughter, found herself yet again pregnant. Although the baby's father was her partner (he had also fathered the other four children) she decided that she did not want another child; the couple's relationship was falling apart anyway. Soon it ended, but the man called in on his former partner and their children regularly carrying food parcels. Then, last November, he did so again. On that occasion he had brought along some meat and opening the freezer to store it away, he found the small, naked, frozen body of a baby. The body was in a transparent plastic bag. He summoned the police and his ex-partner, called from her work, quickly confessed to having smothered the baby, a boy, in the minutes after birth. As she said, "I didn't want it." Now incarcerated, this woman's trial will also commence in the latter part of 2008. Her eldest daughter, now 18, faces the charge of "non-assistance to a person in danger." She allegedly knew that her mother was pregnant and that she was going to kill the baby. Presumably she also knew that the tiny corpse was in the freezer.
The second case is that of Aline Lelièvre, 19. In November of 2006, Aline, in great distress, summoned police to her tiny one-roomed apartment in the town of Redon. She hails from Fégréac. Redon and Fégréac are towns in northwest France, close to the Atlantic coast. In Fégréac (2,000 inhabitants) , Aline lived with her parents in a small, white-walled house that stood at the end of a gravel road. Her father worked in a mattress factory and her mother in a school canteen. Yet still so young, Aline wanted more to her life than a dead-end gravel lane and her job cooking pancakes in a creperie. There was a problem though: She was pregnant by her Portuguese boyfriend, a waiter. The boyfriend, however, abandoned her to go to live in Switzerland. When notified that he was to become a father, he made it clear that he was not ready for fatherhood and certainly not for settling down.
Aline's parents helped her as much as they could; they loved the child she gave birth to, a boy named David, as if he was their own. But Aline still craved for a better, more exciting life. Redon, 12 miles from Fégréac, with its 10,000 inhabitants, therefore suddenly looked like a gilded metropolis to her. That was where she and David would go. She waited until the boy was 14 months old and then she made the move.
Working as a waitress in a pizza bar, Aline could afford to rent a tiny apartment in downtown Redon. She dropped David off at a neighbor's each morning before setting off to sell pizzas.
Then one night, Aline summoned the police. She'd been living in Redon for just two months. Her son, David, she stammered, has been kidnapped. Police rushed to the apartment and listened to Aline's story. She said she'd put the little boy to bed and had then gone downstairs to chuck out the garbage and to smoke a cigarette. On her return to the apartment a few minutes later David was gone. Over the following few days, Aline's bespectacled, pimply, tearful face had all France crying with her. Photographs of her appeared on the front pages of leading magazines: on some she was holding and cuddling a chubby, smiling, blue-eyed baby David. Accompanying stories recounted Aline's sad life: how her Portuguese lover had walked out on her; she was working as a waitress to keep starvation at bay, and David's nanny had stopped taking the little boy in. This had meant that the young, single mother had been taking the child with her to the restaurant; she had, though, told her employer that she would have to leave her job unless she could find someone else to take David in.
A sad story certainly, but the experienced police decided that what she was saying about David's kidnapping did not hang together and, before long, she confessed to having killed the child. She said she suffocated him, then wrapped the little body in a pink sheet from the child's bed, put it in a bag and rode out to a pond on her scooter and threw the bag into the water. In jail, awaiting her trial that will also not be heard until the latter part of 2008, she has tried to commit suicide by drinking a detergent. David's father remains living in Switzerland; having been unaware of what his ex-girlfriend was up to, there are no charges against him.
The third case came to light when a recently retired couple bought an old house in the village of Contres in the picturesque Loire region south of Paris, and, digging in the garden came across the body of a baby. The police, having been summoned to the property, brought in dogs, and soon they found another tiny body also buried in the garden and still yet another. The third was hidden in the house's fireplace. The house's previous owner, Marinette Pezin, 39, soon found and questioned, admitted to having killed the three babies right after their birth. She had no explanation for what she had done other than that her 18-year marriage had been an unhappy one – by then it had ended in divorce – and she already had four children and did not want another. Her ex-husband is not facing any charges: He was apparently unaware of the three pregnancies. This case is also to be heard some time in 2008.
The fourth case of infanticide from which Pingeot could have drawn inspiration came to light this past August.
Virginie Labrosse, 36, admitted to killing three of her newborns. Like Veronique Courjault, the "woman from Toulouse" and Marinette Pezin, she also kept the tiny cadavers at home, and as with the first two, the bodies were discovered by the unsuspecting father.
Virginie and the babies' father, described as a 40-year-old plumber who had in 2001 served a seven-month incarceration for sexually molesting a female hitch-hiker, had been together for 16 years. By all appearances, the couple, who in 2006 had bought an elegant, cream-walled, double-storey house with white shutters in the green hills above Albertville, in the mountainous Savoy region of Eastern France, were financially comfortable and getting on very well. However, their relationship was stormy, and while the two were still living in an apartment in downtown Albertville, Virginie had begun a love affair with their 20-year old neighbor. Then, in August, she left her husband and moved in with her lover. Alone at home, the husband started to scratch in cupboards and around the cellar and came across a box. Inside, were the decomposed bodies of two babies. In a state of shock and almost incoherent, he instantly summoned the police. Virginie, brought to the house, then led the police to another box and in it was yet another tiny decomposed body.
According to Virginie, who confessed that she was not "maternal" and had no wish to have a child, she had killed the three babies immediately after birth: one was a boy, another a girl, but she claimed that she couldn't remember the sex of the third (decomposition has also made it impossible to determine the sex). The first she had killed in 2001. As she told police, she had given birth to that baby "in the toilet" and the baby had "drowned." The second she killed in 2003 and the third in 2006. DNA tests will have to establish whether the third child was fathered by her lover. Both her husband and her lover were unaware of the pregnancies, though the lover's mother told police that Virginie had last year told her son that she was pregnant but she had suffered a miscarriage while on the toilet. "Virginie had put on a lot of weight and often complained about stomach ache but she wouldn't consult a doctor, and then when I saw her last October she had suddenly lost a lot of weight," said the woman.
Meanwhile, Virginie has told police that she kept the babies because she did not want to abandon them. She said: "I considered them part of myself." A psychiatrist explained that she had turned the babies into "dolls."
Virginie had, in fact, moved the little bodies around the house – perhaps playing with them? She had, though, first kept them in the freezer, but fearing that her husband might find them there, she had taken them out and kept them in boxes; the boxes were moved regularly from one room to another, and up and down from the basement. Then, as a police spokesman said: "When the couple started to carefully wrap the crockery to move from the apartment to the new house, she took great care to wrap the little bodies as well. Make no mistake, they were going along."
Incarcerated, Virginie's mental state is being assessed. Her husband and lover do not face any charges. Should Virginie be diagnosed sane and fit to stand trial, the case would not be heard until 2009.
The French, apart from now wanting to know what in the French psyche makes the nation's mothers kill their newborns, also ask themselves what this says of French men as fathers. How can a man, who does not only share a woman's daylight hours but so too her nights, not know, not see, that she's pregnant, especially when she's in an advanced state of pregnancy?
Another puzzle is why a woman would carry a child she really does not want to termination and then slay it brutally on birth, when she lives in a country where she may undergo an abortion legally. Abortion was legalized in France in 1975 and can be obtained on demand and free of charge on the state's health scheme, the Securité Sociale.
In 1976, the first year of legal abortion in France, 134,173 women underwent the procedure here, whereas in 1974, the year before legalization, there had been a reported 36,400 illegal abortions in the country. In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 134,797 women underwent an abortion. Of these the majority (34,887) were aged between 20/24, while 968 were 45 and over, and 6,137 were aged between 12/17. The highest number of abortions was in 1983 with 182,862.written by Marilyn Z. Tomlins; posted September 19, 2007 to CrimeMagazine.com