The Mystery Child and the Politics of Reproduction
Between National Imaginaries and Transnational Confrontations
n the of an eventless and sunless summer, desperately lacking
tragedies or presidential love a√airs, the French were nonethe-
less captivated by a highly mediatized newspaper saga that journalists
quickly titled ‘‘The Mystery Child from Marseille.’’∞ At first the story
seemed trivial: a two-and-a-half-year-old boy from a northern sub-
urb of Marseille—a predominantly working-class, immigrant (mostly
North African) neighborhood—was found left alone on a playground.
After he was brought to the local police station, people started wonder-
ing why no one would come to claim him, let alone why nobody in the
neighborhood seemed even to know who he was. For a few days, the
investigation made no headway. The child was placed in foster care.
Both the newspaper and tv media called for witnesses, broadcasting a
picture of the child, terrorized and screaming, surrounded by police
o≈cers. Finally, after a two-week wait, the mystery was solved. An Al-
gerian woman named Fatma came to the police station to claim the
child. Aged thirty-four, Fatma had come to France twelve years earlier
to join her husband, from whom she had since separated. Residing in
France legally, she had been raising her five children on her own. She
explained that she had left for Algeria hurriedly to visit her seriously ill
mother. She could take only her four older children with her because
the youngest one did not yet have a passport. She thus entrusted the
infant to a young woman she knew and paid, and whom she regularly
called from Algeria to check on her son. Alerted by a phone call from
one of her cousins, who had seen the pictures of the child in the media,
Fatma immediately contacted the police and flew back to France. Upon
her arrival, child protective services took her four other children away,
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