[Written in 2020.] Yesterday, 7th June, was la Fête des Mères (Mother’s Day) in France, i.e. a different date from the UK equivalent, which is held in March. The French are very family minded. In restaurants, you often see whole families from babies to grandparents sitting down to Sunday lunch. The children are usually well behaved since they are used to doing this. And, in our experience, French people tend to socialise en famille, like the Spanish and the Italians. Since 1920, French women have been awarded medals for raising a lot of children, although the rules have changed over time.
Effects of World War I and Spanish Flu
Following World War I, the country had a pressing need to increase the population after the losses of the war. Of some 8.4 million mobilised French soldiers, around 1.36 million lost their lives (around 16% of those mobilised). War-related civilian casualties and military wounded are more difficult to estimate but could have added up to another 5 million people either killed or directly affected in some way.
I hate to mention it in the current climate, but the so-called Spanish flu outbreaks (now thought to have originated in the US) killed an estimated 300,000 in France. Half of the victims were aged between 20 and 40.
The net result of the war and the pandemic was a significant reduction in the number of able-bodied people to work in the fields and factories and to serve in the army should the need arise.
Medals for family values
La Médaille de la Famille Française was created in 1920, following a report by the French health and social security minister, Jules Louis Breton. Breton emphasised that it wasn’t enough simply to have a lot of children; they also had to be raised and educated in a proper moral environment.
Whether it was the moral, military or economic argument to the fore, women were to be recompensed for their role as exemplary mothers. It was also a recognition that many women had taken over their husband’s role during the war and afterwards, if their men did not return. And, of course, they had also worked as nurses and in munitions and other factories during World War I.
It’s a pity they didn’t give women the recognition of the vote as well, but they had to wait until 1944 for that.
The medal had three levels: bronze (four or five children raised); silver (six or seven); and gold (eight or more). The regulations have changed over the years in response to changes in society. In 2013, the government instituted one medal, la Médaille de la Famille, for families with four children or more, of which the eldest has reached 16 years of age. It can now be attributed to a mother or father or both. The emphasis on family and moral values remains.
Families can apply for the medal or be nominated by a third party or their local mayor. The medal is traditionally presented by the mayor on the day of la Fête des Mères. Presumably, current circumstances may have curtailed these ceremonies this year.
La Fête des Mères
The origins of La Fête des Mères go back more than 200 years. Napoleon established a day devoted to mothers of large families in 1806. After World War I, Lyon organised a fête to honour war widows. The day became a national fête in 1929. It normally takes place at the end of May, but it was put back this year, because Pentecôte (Whitsun) fell then.
Pétain appropriated la Fête des Mères during the Vichy years. He reminded women of their Christian and patriotic duty in swelling the population and promoting the Vichy motto “Travail, famille, patrie“.
Nowadays, although the honouring aspect remains, la Fête des Mères is also a commercial occasion. The most frequently given gifts are, not surprisingly, flowers, perfume, chocolates, jewellery and gift boxes. I’m not a mother, but I’m always happy to receive any of those, especially the jewellery.
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