A madame with no name: France’s mystery woman

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.

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

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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French village offers €2,000 reward for anyone who can decipher mystery stone message

A French village is offering a €2,000 reward to anyone who can decode a mysterious, centuries-old inscription on a rock visible only at low tide.

French village offers €2,000 reward for anyone who can decipher mystery stone message
Local councillor Michel Paugam poses with the rock. Photo: AFP

Lapped by the waves of the Atlantic and visible at only low tide, the mysterious rock inscription is believed to be centuries old and so far undeciphered, lurking outside a French village in Brittany.

The town hall in Plougastel-Daoulas in the Finistere region of Brittany in northwest France is now offering a €2,000 reward for anyone who can decrypt the sequence of letters and symbol.


Detail of the mysterious carving on the rock. Photo AFP

Could the small boulder have been used for a love letter whose secret has remained untouched for centuries, or a proud note left by an 
eighteenth-century fort-builder? Or something even more mysterious?

Locally, the rock is sometimes compared to the Rosetta Stone, the great ancient Egyptian stele now in the British Museum whose inscription was partly deciphered by the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion.

The authorities in Plougastel-Daoulas hope that their competition will shed light on the enigmatic piece of history. 

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a 

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

On a first glance the inscription defies interpretation.


“There are people who tell us that it's Basque and others who say it's old Breton,” said the mayor of Plougastel-Daoulas Dominique Cap.

“But we still have not managed to decipher the text,” the mayor told AFP, adding the rock was first spotted around three-four years ago.

The appeal to crack the code has been made to linguists, historians, academics, students or simply people who enjoy code-breaking as a hobby.

A jury will then meet to choose the most plausible suggestion and award the prize.

“There are a lot of words, they're letters from our alphabet, but we can't read them, we can't make them out,” said the municipal councillor in charge of local heritage Michel Paugam.