When bullets sprayed across the terraces, boulevards and cafes of Paris the night of Nov. 13, the carnage was massive and immediate. Dozens of people were killed instantly in the gunfire and suicide bombs that shook the streets of the 11th Arrondissement in what would become the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II.
Across the city, dozens of children, many already asleep in their beds, lost one or both parents to those lethal attacks that left 130 dead. These orphans of terrorism were joined Monday by yet another young child, this time a 3-year-old boy whose parents were killed in suburban Paris in an attack reportedly inspired by the Islamic State group. President François Hollande announced Tuesday the boy and his half-sibling would become “pupilles de la nation,” or “wards of the nation.”
Created after World War I for orphans of veterans, the little-known status has been more recently applied to children orphaned by terror attacks, and the program can provide for everything from money to buy baby formula to college tuition. With the number of terror victims spiking in the past year, dozens of children are now discovering the tangible support and symbolic burden of being adopted by the French state.
“The main advantage is the official recognition that these children have suffered a profound trauma,” Olivier Faron, a historian who has spent years studying wards of the nation, told radio station France 24. “It’s the state of France acknowledging an injustice.”
At least 61 children in France lost one or both parents to terror attacks in 2015. From the massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January and the siege of a kosher supermarket days later, to the series of coordinated attacks in November, 147 people were killed in acts of terror in France last year alone.
That same year, 54 orphans were granted the status of wards of the nation, 18 of whom had lost parents to terrorism, according to data provided by the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, the branch of government in charge of this program. The phrase used to describe this phenomenon is “to be adopted by the nation,” a French expression that hints at something warmer, more familial, than the routine support provided by a government.
These children, however, are more than “wards of the state” — a term that itself seems to connote some Dickensian horrorscape. The status is in part a symbolic one as it does not replace other parental or familial support, but merely supplements it.
The program began as a kind of paternal substitute, after approximately 1 million French children lost their fathers during World War I. As the nation rebuilt in the years that followed, many widows struggled to support their children. The government eventually stepped in, with the first years of the program being financed by reparations from Germany granted to France in the Treaty of Versailles.
It evolved in 1990 to include children whose parents had been killed by acts of terror as far back as 1982. The program was expanded again in 1993 to include the children of slain law enforcement officers and is extended to children regardless of their nationality. If a parent died in defense of the nation of France or was killed by its enemies, the child qualifies.
From a practical point of view, the benefits and services as a ward of France far exceed standard support given to veterans and their families. These children must apply to be wards of the nation, and once recognized, enjoy a legal status that is unique to the nation.
Financial support afforded by this legal status provides for clothes, food, vacation stipends, tuition fees and certain special scholarships. Wards of the nation can also receive help finding their first job, and can continue to request support throughout their lives if need be. Most benefits end after age 21, but the symbolic status is for life.
“Once the dust has settled, when no one continues to speak about these attacks, we will continue to be there to help [these children]. This is for the long-term,” a representative from the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War office told Libération newspaper after November’s attacks.
Though a lifetime of financial and emotional support may seem like a daunting task, it is a relatively low-cost operation for the French government. There were 353 active beneficiaries of the program in 2015, costing 1.1 million euros or approximately $1.2 million, according to the veterans’ office, which means each child received an estimated $3,399.
Being a ward of the nation means more than having an extra social safety net, however. Symbolically, it is both a rare honor and a heavy burden. A dead parent may be enshrined as a martyr, but it also permanently marks the child by the death in the form of an enduring legal status. Being a son or daughter of France serves as a constant reminder that one’s mother or father is gone.
“It’s also very difficult to carry the weight of the death of a hero,” historian Faron said in the same interview. “Being the child of someone who died for France is highly charged and laden with meaning.”