IMAGINE AN anguished French father sneaking into a bedroom at night to snip a lock of hair, or cajoling an infant to obtain a trace of saliva or fingernail cutting. It may sound melodramatic, but there is evidence that thousands of Frenchmen are commissioning genetic paternity tests from foreign laboratories every year.
“It enabled me to move forward in my relationship with my child,” an anonymous father told France 2 television on May 28th. “If I hadn’t done it, I’d still be wondering whether I was the father.”
Paternity tests were banned in France 15 years ago. If French customs intercept DNA samples or results in the mail, the perpetrators in theory risk up to a year in prison and a €15,000 fine. The French Council of State upheld the law on May 6th, saying it did not want “to upset the French regime of filiation” and that the intent of lawmakers was to preserve “the peace of families”. On May 15th, the German Bundesrat adopted a similar measure.
Yet the tests are widely available on the internet, and are reportedly sold over the counter in the US.
If you google “paternity tests”, you’ll find 1,180,000 entries, the first of which offers a test in Dublin for €259 in five days.
According to Prof Jean-Paul Moisan, the head of the Nantes Atlantique genetic institute, between 10,000 and 20,000 Frenchmen buy paternity tests via the internet every year.
The Swiss lab Gentest told Le Journal du Dimanche that 60 per cent of up to 3,000 genetic tests it performs annually are ordered by Frenchmen. Spanish lab DNA Solutions said 80 per cent of its 2,500 annual clients are French.
Nadine Morano, France’s junior minister for the family, says foreign tests are not reliable and warns against “the psychological impact of results”. She has spoken of the danger that “If all fathers start asking whether they’re really the fathers of their children, we enter into a society of doubt that imperils the family.”
In France, paternity tests may be carried out only on a judge’s orders and with the consent of those involved. Some 1,500 tests are done legally in France each year.
Mater certissima, pater semper incertus (motherhood is certain, the father is always uncertain) said ancient Roman law. The British medical journal the Lancet reported that one in 30 children is not the biological offspring of their putative fathers. In France, a country where infidelity is more often regarded as pleasure than sin, the percentage may be higher.
French psychologists and anthropologists say that filiation is a question of recognition in the eyes of society, not biology.
For example, the first lady, Carla Bruni, says the late Alberto Bruni Tedeschi was her father, because “the father is the one who gives the name”. But she is close to Maurizio Remmert, her biological father.
A more serious example of French paternity conundrums is the case of Julien Charnolé, whose girlfriend claimed the daughter she bore three years ago was the result of rape, and put the infant up for adoption.
Charnolé later learned from the judge investigating the rape that a DNA test proved he was the biological father. On May 28th, a French court ruled that the adoption was irreversible, in the interest of the child.
Charnolé says every time he passes a little girl in the street he wonders whether she’s his. He is appealing the court’s decision.