A strange atmosphere reigns in the Jardin du Monument aux Mères Françaises. It’s barely a garden, just a few lime trees and a gravel path shaping attention towards the imposing monument at its heart. There is nobody here, and no traces to suggest that anyone ever comes. Is it the perspective, proportions or politics that put them off?
The scale is Stalinian, and this doesn’t feel like Paris. In fact its easy to imagine yourself in a garden of an obscure Eastern European state, confronted by a visual representation of an ideology that is clearly unloved by the locals. This monument though, despite its forms and size, is not promoting a dogma or (directly) commemorating a glorious war, but was instead erected to honour something far more universal. Motherhood.
The monument, created by the architect Paul Bigot, was inaugurated by the President of France, Albert Lebrun, on the 25th October 1938, but it seems much older. It is heavy and austere, solemn too with the grey weather-eaten faces of the statues. There is too much text, a full paragraph from Lebrun chiselled into the stone on one side, and quotations from Edmond Labbe and Victor Hugo on the other. War and sorrow do not seem far away, and indeed war was the reason for its creation.
The First World War had sent a greater number of young fathers off to battle than ever before, and many never returned. In the 1920s, France therefore saw a generation of children raised by just one parent, and the nation wanted to recognise the role played by these French mothers in the rebuilding of the country. The timing of the unveiling though, a year before another brutal conflict, was unfortunate to say the least.
Has the monument ever been a popular one? Christel Sniter, in a thesis entitled ‘Les femmes célèbres dans la statuaire publique à Paris (1870-2004)’, outlines how it almost immediately became the scene of protests. First, in the 1940s, when French communists gathered to protest, and later in the 1970s when feminists identified it as an image of opression. On both occasions, the groups were critical of the fact that the image of the French woman was again being reduced to just that of a mother.
It is awkward and massive monument, poorly situated in a pocket-sized park. It is incongruous and outdated, and yet it does seem there is something here worth celebrating. Or perhaps I just visited at an opportune moment. Naturally my thoughts turned to one French mother in particular. The mother of my son, and since last Thursday, the mother of our lovely new daughter.