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FRENCH FACE OF THE WEEK

WOMEN

Hero of French fathers, or ‘macho misogynist’?

A desperate, loving father kept from his son, or a manipulative, abusive attention-seeker? Either way, it was impossible to ignore his dramatic four-day protest in Nantes from Friday to Monday. Meet Serge Charnay, our French Face of the Week.

Hero of French fathers, or 'macho misogynist'?
Serge Charnay, waving from a 43-metre crane in Nantes, on February 17th, the third day of his protest to reclaim the right to visit his estranged son. Photo: Frank Perry/AFP

Who's Serge Charnay?

Serge Charnay is a 42-year-old man from Nantes in western France who spent three nights and four days suspended on a crane this week, to protest for the right to visit his six-year-old son Benoit.

Tell me more.

Well, Charnay has been engaged in a bit of a one-man mission for the last 18 months, after he was accused of kidnapping his son in 2011, and denied all visitation rights since then. When he and wife got divorced in 2009, a family court gave Charnay custody of Benoit on one out of every three weekends. But in 2011 Charnay took his son to Ardèche, a picturesque region of south-central France, but didn’t bring him back for two whole months. He had already been warned after a similar incident in 2010 and his ex-wife accused him of kidnapping Benoit. Charnay lost all custody rights and was later sentenced to a year in prison, and served four months, for threatening his ex-wife and attacking her father.

So what happened this week?

Last Friday morning, February 15th, Charnay climbed a 43-metre crane in Nantes, unfurled a banner reading “Benoit – two years without his dad”, and painted “Save our children from the courts” onto the front of the crane itself.

He refused to come down until a meeting had been held between France’s justice minister Christiane Taubira, and a number of organizations dedicated to the rights of fathers. Charnay sent intermittent texts to the media, and held phone conversations with journalists on live TV. He declined offers of food, water and medicine, but for a few hours on Saturday he did have the company of his friend Nicolas Moreno, another father seeking custody of his two sons.

How did it all end?

Well, on Monday a meeting did take place between Minister for Justice Christiane Taubira, Minister for Families Dominique Bertinotti, and a few fathers’ rights organizations, primarily two groups called SOS Papa (‘SOS Dad’) and SVP Papa (‘Please, Dad’).

The meeting didn’t resolve the problems of French parental custody laws – France Inter radio called it ‘stormy and disappointing’ – but it was enough to persuade Serge Charnay to descend from the crane which had, for one week, become France’s most photographed structure.

What has the reaction been like in France toward Serge Charnay?

Sharply divided. Over the weekend, there was a lot of sympathy for him, and the ‘courage’ of his dramatic gesture. He had the backing of the SVP Papa group, for example. However, as revelations began to emerge on Sunday and Monday about Charnay’s past legal violations, and a possible propensity towards violence, the tone of media reports began to shift.

Photo: Charnay at an SVP Papa protest in Nantes on February 20th. Frank Perry/AFP

Some have associated Charnay with an anti-feminist, or even misogynist streak within the fathers’ rights movement, and the wider ‘masculinist’ movement. On Tuesday, a video emerged on the internet of SVP Papa members from the north of France singing a song with crude, vulgar lyrics and the chorus “toutes les femmes puent, il n’y a que les hommes qui sentent bon” (literally, “all women stink, only men smell good.”)

As soon as he came down from the crane on Monday afternoon, Charnay launched an attack on what he called “the women who govern us.” One of them, family minister Dominique Bertinotti responded by saying, “I can’t prevent misogynistic, macho opinions – there are too many of them out there,” according to weekly magazine L’Express.

What’s been the impact of his actions this week?

He has started a debate in France – about parental custody in particular, and the rights and roles of men and women, in general. It has since been revealed for example that in France, 72% of divorces result in sole custody of children for the mother. On Wednesday, L’Express posed the question, “Serge Charnay: tearful father, or masculinist figurehead?”

He has also inspired other men to similar protests. On Saturday night an estranged father in the western town of Saintes climbed on to the roof of his apartment in protest, and threatened to jump off, before safely descending at 1am. The next morning, yet another father, who had been denied contact with his son for three years, scaled a crane in Strasbourg and stayed there for two hours.

What one moment sums him up?

It has to be his descent – to sparse applause – from the crane in Nantes on Monday afternoon. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a tragic moment of delusional self-defeat, a triumphant illustration of one man’s love for his child, or the inevitable end of a manipulative misogynist’s 15 minutes of fame.

What do others say about him?

“Serge Charnay is solely responsible for the breakdown of his parental rights, and his so-called fight mustn’t be confused with that of the many fathers who are unjustly kept away from their children,” Sandrine Caron, lawyer for Charnay’s ex-wife was quoted as saying in French daily Le Monde.

What does he have to say for himself?

“What annoys me most is that the cause of dads is not heard, and that the women who govern us make fun of us. We’re going to have fight them even harder. These lovely ladies still think we can’t change a baby’s nappy or take care of them,” Charnay was quoted as saying in Rue 89.
 

The Local's 'French face of the week' is a person in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as French face of the week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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FAMILY

How to register a death and arrange a funeral in France

There’s a third certainty in life in France, after death and taxes - and that’s bureaucracy. 

Graves at a cemetery in Paris
There are strict rules around burial or cremation n France. Photo: Martin Bureau / AFP

No one wants to think about death while they’re enjoying the good life in France, but it’s important to understand what needs to be done – and when – in the event of a loved one dying in France.

Let’s start with what you can do before you die.

Burial or cremation

It’s a good idea to make it known whether you want a burial or cremation in France, or if you want your body repatriated for a service back home, so that anyone dealing with the formalities is aware of your wishes.

If you do want to be buried in France, it’s a good idea to reserve a plot, as it will make things a lot easier at a difficult time. Just keep the document that confirms you have done so in a safe place.

Funeral insurance

Funerals can cost anywhere between €3,000 and €5,000, so it can be a good option for older people to take out a funeral plan – they’re routinely offered by banks, insurers or funeral firms. It means funeral funding and organisation is automatically in place, and any family members flying into France, whose French may not be very strong, don’t have that issue to face. 

After a person dies, numerous administrative tasks are necessary in a short period of time.

The first 24 hours

If you’re with a family member, friend or relative when they die, you have 24 hours to report the death. 

If they die at home, contact their GP, or call 112 or 15. A doctor will come round and certify death and issue a medical certificate (certificat de décès / declaration de décès). If the person dies in a hospital, retirement home or other facility, it is their responsibility to report the death.

If the doctor believes the death was suspicious or by suicide, an inquiry is held. This is also standard if the death occurred in a public place. The responsibility for issuing the certificat de décès and burial permission in such cases falls to the public prosecutor (Procureur de la République) in the local high court (Tribunal de Grande Instance).

Registering the death

A relative, representative or undertaker then has to register the death at the local mairie (town hall) within 24 hours, unless the death takes place on a public holiday or at a weekend, when the admin offices at town halls are closed. 

Those who report the death need to take proof of their own ID, as well as proof of the deceased person’s identity (a carte nationale d’identité, carte de séjour, passport, marriage certificate or birth certificate) and the recently issued medical death certificate.

This should be enough for officials to issue a death certificate (acte de décès) – which includes information on where and when the death took place, not the cause of death. 

You can ask for several copies – they’re free and it’s a good idea to do so. These documents are needed to close the deceased’s bank or utility accounts. But, if you later find out you don’t have enough, don’t worry. More copies can be obtained online, in person or by post.

Organ donation

It may seem a bit crass to slip this point in here, but in general every adult in France is presumed to be an organ donor, unless they specifically opt out. 

This has been the case since the Loi Caillavet was passed in 1976, making everyone an organ donor except for those who have explicitly refused, as well as minors and those under someone else’s guardianship.

The rule, however, is different for foreign nationals who die in France. In such cases, the law of their home country takes priority.

In practice, doctors will consult with family members before harvesting any organs. Refusal must be in writing, and must confirm that the deceased had expressed their opposition to organ donation. 

Arranging the funeral

Once the death is registered, the mairie issues a burial permit (permis d’inhumer).

The deceased’s family usually have six days to arrange the service for a burial or a cremation, with allowances if there’s an open investigation or if the death happened on a weekend or public holiday, or if the person died abroad and wishes to be repatriated to France – in which case the time limit is six days of the arrival of the body in France.

Burial can’t take place within the first 24 hours after death.

If the deceased had indicated what type of ceremony they wanted, their wishes must be respected. If they didn’t specify, the decision has to be made by their closest relatives.

The funeral directors will help with these formalities. The mairie will have a list of local firms, and the website www.pompesfunebresdefrance.com has details of funeral directors in towns and cities across the country.

Burial

Burial in a cemetery requires a surviving spouse, parent or child to ask permission from the mairie. This is a formality and will usually be granted – though there are exceptions.

The deceased can be buried in the commune where they lived, where they died or where they have a family tomb.

Families may request to have them buried in another city, town or village (for example, if that’s where other family members) but the mairie may decline the request.

If the deceased had not already reserved a burial plot (une concession) you need to buy one. This is done at the mairie or at the bureau des cimetières. Costs vary depending on timespan which ranges from five – 15 years, to perpetuity and can usually be paid in installments. Arrangements may be made if the family lacks the means to pay.

Enquiries about burial must be made as soon as possible to organise a time and date for a funeral. If a burial plot had been previously reserved, you should find a document called a titre de concession confirming this.

Normally cemeteries require flat paving to be placed over the grave before the family can install a headstone.

Cremation

As with burials, permission for a cremation has to be obtained from the town hall of the commune where the death took place, as cremations usually take place at the crematorium nearest the place of death.

A medical certificate showing there are no medical or legal reasons preventing cremation is required. Medical implants such as pacemakers must be removed by a doctor or embalmer.

Following any short service, ashes are handed to a family member privately shortly after the funeral, or may be stored temporarily while the family considers what they plan to do with them. 

But there are strict rules on where ashes may be scattered. You can’t just throw them anywhere –  for example, scattering them on private land is banned. Communes will usually have a remembrance garden used for this purpose, but – again – surviving family members may be required to ask permission from the mairie to use it. 

Who pays?

Funeral expenses in France are covered by the estate of the deceased, usually their bank account. If the money in their accounts isn’t enough to cover the overall fee, heirs or family members must pay the difference.

The person taking charge of the funeral may, upon presentation of the funeral invoice, obtain the debit from the bank account of the deceased, which is to say, the required amount for the payment of funeral expenses, with a limit of €5,000. Beyond this amount, a notary needs to get involved.

If the deceased had funeral insurance, contact the insurer as soon as possible after death.

Seven days and after

Within seven days of the person’s death, you should notify their employer if they were working, health and life insurance companies, bank (do mention if you shared a joint account), and their landlord, if they were renting.

Within 30 days, notify France’s primary health insurance fund CPAM and return the deceased’s carte vitale health card.

Within six months, make sure you have informed the tax office with reference to income tax declarations and other relevant fiscal information. The process can be done online in the first two months after the person’s death.

Inheritance

A notary must be contacted promptly, in order to open the inheritance file. There is a six-month time limit for the filing of the succession declaration and the payment of an inheritance tax, if the death took place in France, twelve months in other cases. This is usually sufficient for an estate to be settled.

Notaires de France has a comprehensive English-language inheritance guide on its website.

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