A madame with no name: France's mystery woman

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Dan MacGuill - [email protected]
A madame with no name: France's mystery woman
"I am certain of my identity. Certain." The mystery woman of Perpignan talks to French television this week. Photo: Algeria Son/Youtube

In January, a woman calling herself 'Sarah Mastouri' walked into a psychiatric hospital in south-western France. When mystified police discovered that no such person exists, it set off a nationwide hunt that took a surprise turn this week.


Who is the mystery woman of Perpignan?

We don’t exactly know. According to her she's Sarah Mastouri, a 29-year-old Algerian-born orphan. But several months of enquiries have revealed only this much – no such person exists.

Why is she in the news this week?

Over the weekend, doctors at a psychiatric hospital in Thuir, near Perpignan in south-western France, launched an extraordinary "last resort" public appeal for help.

Publishing photos of a young woman with a dark complexion and curly black hair, French media have since then been reporting the mystery with headlines such as “Do you know this woman?”

How did she end up in this position?

We can’t know for sure, but the oldest vivid memory ‘Sarah’ has, is waking up in a hospital in Perpignan last July, after being attacked on the street and having her papers and ID stolen.

Her doctor, Philippe Raynaud, said on Saturday that it’s quite possible this supposed attack left her suffering from amnesia.

According to her, she floated around the south-western city for some months, before finally presenting herself at the psychiatric hospital in Thuir in January.

She gave doctors a precise account of who she was, where she came from, and what she had been doing with herself.

What was her ‘life story’

“My name is Sarah Mastouri. I was born somewhere in Algeria on July 4th, 1984,” she was quoted as saying by local daily l’Independent.

She claimed she was an orphan, sent to France at the age of three months for an adoption that never went through.

Then she returned to Algeria, and back to France once again.

She said she had studied in Vitry-le-François, in north-eastern France, then in Reims, and later in Paris.

‘Sarah’ finished secondary school at the Lycée Jean-Lurçat in Perpignan, before studying sociology in the south-eastern city of Lyon, “where she lived on rue d’Angers, in the 7th arrondissement.”

Doctors suspected nothing out of the ordinary until they contacted authorities to track down her relatives.

Nobody matching her name, date of birth, place of birth, or list of addresses could be found by immigration officials, the Algerian embassy, or France’s social security agency.

Sarah Mastouri, they were told repeatedly, doesn’t exist.

So if this vulnerable, troubled young woman wasn’t Sarah Mastouri, authorities had to find out who she really was, and that’s where things get really interesting.

What does this woman have to say about it all?

Well, ‘Sarah Mastouri’ insists she really is Sarah Mastouri, the 29-year-old Algerian immigrant.

“I’m certain of my identity,” she told France 2 television this week.

Other commentators have cast doubt on the theory that she is suffering from amnesia.

They have questioned the fact that, despite remembering clearly the name of her secondary school and the street she lived on in Lyon, she couldn’t recall the name of a single friend or family member.

Consistently being told that she is not the person she firmly believes herself to be, has apparently taken its toll on her.

“It’s terribly frustrating. I want a normal life again, to find a job and a place to live. And for that I need documents,” she told l’Independant.

“But nobody can give me those documents, because nobody can find any trace of me anywhere,” she added.

Nobody, that was, until this week.

What happened this week?

On Monday, after two days of mass media coverage, a woman in Reims, not far from Paris, called investigators claiming to be ‘Sarah’s’ mother.

She sent police old photos of the mystery patient, and told them her name wasn’t Sarah, she wasn’t born in Algeria, and she wasn’t 29 years of age.

Rather, she was born in 1990, and her origins are in Réunion, a French-owned island in the Indian ocean.

Police are probing the family’s claims, and it remains to be seen whether the patient of Perpignan has found her true identity, or this is just another twist in one of the most mysterious stories to grip France in recent years.

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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