The mother whose tears fooled France for months

Since reporting her five-year-old daughter Fiona missing in May, Cécile Bourgeon has had the sympathy and support of the entire French nation. This week, though, she made an unthinkable confession and quickly became a figure of hatred in France.

The mother whose tears fooled France for months
“What they have done is despicable. It’s horrible, indefinable and inhuman.” Cécile Bourgeon launched an appeal to find her daughter Fiona, knowing she was already dead. Photo: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP

Who’s Cécile Bourgeon

She’s a 25-year-old mother from Clermont-Ferrand in central France.

Why is she in the news this week?

Bourgeon has been in the French news throughout the summer, appearing in tears in front of cameras back in May, launching a desperate appeal for help in finding her five-year-old daughter Fiona, who she claimed had gone missing while playing in the park.

This week, after four months of painstaking searches by police and volunteers, hundreds of false leads, repeated interviews with Bourgeon and her family, and an enormous groundswell of sympathy from the French people, the mother made a shocking confession.

Late on Wednesday night, after two days of intense grilling from police in the south-western city of Perpignan, where she now lives, Bourgeon appears to have finally cracked, and began telling investigators what appears to be the truth.

Her daughter Fiona never in fact went missing. That fateful trip to the park never even took place and Bourgeon never had any hope of finding her, because Fiona was dead, and she hid her body herself.

Five-year-old Fiona. Photo: AFP/Clermont-Ferrand police.

What happened to Fiona?

As of Thursday we still don’t know, because the little girl’s body hasn’t been found yet. According to her lawyer, Bourgeon told interrogators that her boyfriend, Berkane Maklouf, had beaten Fiona to death in a drunken rage.

But Maklouf has offered a different version of events. He says the pair had woken one morning in May to find that Fiona had choked on her own vomit.

According to lawyers both Bourgeon and Maklouf admit they found Fiona dead in her bed one morning and that, panicking, disposed of her body.

Bourgeon reportedly told police this week that the couple had stuffed Fiona’s naked body into a leather bag, which they placed in the boot of their car.

With Fiona’s baby sister Eva in the back seat, the couple drove out to a wooded area on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand.

When they arrived there, Bourgeon claims she stayed in the vehicle with Eva, while Maklouf carried Fiona’s corpse to a spot on the fringes of the forest, dug a hole, and buried her naked body there.

What did Bourgeon do next?

In short, she lied and carried on lying. At 6.45pm on Sunday, May 12th, Bourgeon reported Fiona missing. She told them she had been at Montjuzet park in Clermont-Ferrand, with her two daughters.

She claimed she had fallen asleep on a park bench for 15 minutes, and when she awoke, Fiona was gone.

"She was pretty tired because she’s six months pregnant,” said local prosecutor Pierre Sennes at the time.

Police helped Bourgeon launch a massive public appeal for information, including a dedicated phone number, and dozens of police officers, soldiers and firemen combed the 26-hectare park for clues, while a helicopter fitted with a thermal imaging camera circled above them.

It was all to no avail.

While she waited in the car, Bourgeon's boyfriend buried Fiona naked in a forest. Bourgeon then launched an emotional appeal for help and a nationwide search. Photo: Yuki Akachan/Youtube

How has Bourgeon behaved in public?

She’s been really persuasive, to be honest. Which is one of the main reasons why there has been such a flood of hatred and anger towards her in the last 24 hours.

On May 16th, Bourgeon appeared before French media, tearfully asking the French nation for help in finding her daughter.

“I think about everything and nothing in particular. This is very hard, psychologically," she said in a separate interview. Here is a short video of first national television appearance (in French.)

When investigators formally concluded that Fiona had been abducted, and changed their line of inquiry to one of “kidnapping and false imprisonment,” Bourgeon received an outpouring of sympathy from members of the public all over France.

Hundreds of local volunteers and well-wishers handed out missing person posters and canvassed all over Clermont-Ferrand, in an effort to speed the search for Fiona to a happy ending.

In August, after three months without developments, Bourgeon reappeared for an interview with local newspaper La Montagne, which has followed the case particularly closely since the beginning.

The mother, knowing her daughter was dead, and having arranged for her burial in a forest, actually complained about how frustrating it was to not have any clues as to her whereabouts.

“Three months have already passed and still no good news,” she said. “We’re still waiting for a solid lead. It’s very hard, but I have to keep fighting.”

“Where I’ve been disappointed is that there have been so many testimonies which have led nowhere. But if someone does have information, they must come forward.”

Hundreds of well-wishers and supporters took to the streets of Clermont-Ferrand to help speed the search for Fiona to a happy ending. Photo: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP

What happens now?

On Thursday evening, Bourgeon told investigators she would lead them to the spot where Fiona was buried, in a forest next to Lac d’Aydat near Clermont-Ferrand.

The search proved fruitless, however, and was soon suspended. Once more police have been left frustrated by Bourgeon and unable to bring the entire episode to a resolution.

The French public, meanwhile, have been left in disgust, trying to comprehend how Cécile Bourgeon and Berkane Maklouf did what they did.

Stéphane Pozzo, who started a Facebook group in support of Bourgeon’s search for Fiona, summed up the emotions of many in France on Thursday, speaking to Europe 1 radio.

“What they have done is despicable. It’s horrible, indefinable and inhuman.” 

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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MH370: ‘Seat and window parts’ found on Réunion

Seat cushions and window panes have been found on the French island of Réunion, according to a Malaysian minister. The unconfirmed report comes days after a wing part from the missing MH370 flight was washed up on the island.

MH370: 'Seat and window parts' found on Réunion
Police have been scouring the beaches of Réunion since last week. Photo: AFP

Aircraft seat cushions and window panes have been found on the Indian Ocean island where wreckage from MH370 was recovered, Malaysia's transport minister said on Thursday.

“We have also found debris like window panes, aluminium foil and seat cushions,” Liow Tiong Lai told AFP.

He later specified he was referring to aircraft seats and windows. 

(Police investigate a piece of debris on a Réunion beach. Photo: AFP)

French authorities are yet to confirm the new findings and news agency AFP quoted a legal source close to the French probe into the crash, that investigators had no new plane debris in their possession.

Reports of the wreckage come one day after the Malaysian prime minister confirmed that the flaperon – a part of an aircraft's wing that washed up on the shore of the island last week – was from the missing flight MH370.

French prosecutors were more cautious in their initial findings on Wednesday than Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, saying only that there was a “very high probability” that the wing part was from the Malaysian Airlines flight. 
But they confirmed the part was from a Boeing 777, of the type that vanished without trace on March 8, 2014, after veering off course while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

(Locals have joined the hunt for more potential plane parts. Photo: AFP)   
The disappearance of the plane, which had 239 people on board, sparked a colossal, multinational sweep of the seas for wreckage, and a myriad of conspiracy theories about its fate.
France has a legal involvement in the investigation because it lost four citizens in the incident.
More to follow