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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 09:17 GMT
Islanders demand French apology
Simon A-Poi in Gueret
Given a choice, Simon A-Poi would not have come to France
Children taken from their Indian Ocean homes to help repopulate rural France in the 1960s are looking for an apology from the French government, writes the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse.

The Creuse is one of the most rural and under-developed parts of France.

To 12-year-old Simon A-Poi, it must have seemed pretty grim.

He arrived in the departmental capital, Gueret, in 1966, along with more than 100 other children.

They had been taken from their homes on the island of Reunion, an overseas departement of France, thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean.

From the mid-1960s until 1980, more than 1,600 children like Simon A-Poi were taken from their families and sent to live in orphanages or with foster parents in mainland France.

Low-paid jobs

The plan was simple: the problem of steady population decline in rural areas could be solved by simply transporting the population "surplus" from Reunion. The largest number ended up in the Creuse.

With promises of prosperity and a brighter future, families on Reunion were persuaded to sign over their children into the care of the French state.

But 40 years on, many are still in low-paid jobs, as cleaners and cooks. Some have entirely lost contact with their families back home.

Now Mr A-Poi has formed an association with other "exiles" and is taking their case to court. He wants the French state to admit that what it did was wrong.

"If you look in the dictionary, you will see the definition of the word 'deportation': to remove a population from one region and repatriate in another. That's the exact meaning of the word."

He wants an apology and symbolic damages of 1 euro.

"When we got off the coach at this huge building full of little kids from Reunion, my first question was: Where on earth are we?"

Cold welcome

Simon A-Poi remembers his first day in Gueret. The "huge building" was an orphanage that was to become his home for the next few years. Walking round it today, he says little has changed.

"I was placed in this room here," he says as we come to a space about 8m by 5m, on the lower ground floor of the orphanage.

Photos of Reunion exiles
The Reunion children were aliens in the rural French community
"I slept in here with four or five other little ones. Even 40 years on, I feel very emotional every time I come back here. The memories are still strong. I was far away from home, but at least I had other kids like me for companionship."

Madame Virmoux-Boisse worked at the orphanage back in the 1960s. She remembers the day Simon's coach arrived.

"We were astonished. When the kids arrived it was almost winter. They weren't used to the cold, they'd never seen snow. Some didn't know what gloves were, or long trousers.

"I saw some wearing two pairs of shorts, one over the other. I saw one girl coming back from school in tears because she was so cold. She didn't know what to do with her gloves."

But the residents of the Creuse were equally perplexed by the new arrivals.

Local friction

Jean-Claude Simon, a gardener, says there was friction between the locals and the children from Reunion.

"It was the first time we had seen children with a different skin colour," he said.

Letter authorising France to take charge of children
Reunion families signed their children over to the French state
"It was at a time towards the end of the war with Algeria, and there were people who had come back from the war, or who had lost children in the war, and those people had a pretty violent reaction to the kids from Reunion."

He thought the children had been abandoned by their families back home. When he discovered the truth, he decided to do his bit and help track down the relatives of some of the children brought over to repopulate the Creuse.

Despite the fact that many of the Reunion children have stayed, the Creuse is still one of the most under-populated parts of France.

As we walk around town, Mr A-Poi stops regularly to greet shopkeepers and cafe owners. Clearly he is a familiar and popular figure in the area.

After being placed with various families, and running away several times, Simon A-Poi finished school, married a local woman and went to work as a cook. Although he goes back regularly to Reunion to see his daughter who has moved back there, his life is now in Gueret.

But of one thing, he is certain: "If I could turn back the clock, I would do anything to avoid coming here in the first place."

Colonial abuses haunt France
16 May 05 |  Europe
Regions and territories: Reunion
09 Nov 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: France
20 Dec 05 |  Country profiles

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