Sunday, September 17, 2006

PARIS — The two elderly women acknowledged each other politely but frostily, with the same nod of the head and identical words: “Bonjour, je suis Madeleine Mores.”

French detectives watching them waited for one of the gray-haired 82-year-olds to slip and give away a clue that she was not who she claimed to be.

Instead, the pensioners in their scoop-neck, flower-print frocks stood their ground, each insisting she was Madeleine Paule Helene Mores, born on Nov. 6, 1924, in Tellancourt, northeast France, to Albert Mores and his wife, Anna. They both produced passports, identity cards, pay slips and birth certificates to prove their claim.

Baffled police, who set up the strange encounter, do not know whether they are dealing with a case of identity theft, stretching back more than half a century, or an administrative blunder in which two babies were given the same name.

They say they may have to exhume the remains, buried 65 years ago, of the woman both claim as their mother, to find out who is the real Madeleine Mores: the bespectacled octogenarian from Vittel in the Vosges, eastern France, or her namesake from Saint-Etienne in the Loire.

The case first came to the authorities’ attention two years ago when the Madeleine from Vittel returned from Algeria, where she had moved with her husband, a railway worker, in the 1960s. She was shocked when she applied for an identity card in France and was told it had already been issued — to a woman of the same name and details living in Saint-Etienne.

Worse, she was told she could not start to collect her $670-a-month state pension, because the other Madeleine Mores had been claiming it for more than 20 years.

Police discovered that each woman had documents apparently proving her identity, and a number of strange parallels in their early lives.

Born in Tellancourt, near the Belgian border, Madeleine from Vittel was 7 years old when she and her four brothers and sisters were placed with a series of local foster parents. “My mother died giving birth to my youngest brother in 1931. Afterwards, my father abandoned us,” she said.

At age 12, she began working as a servant in local farms, but at 16, when World War II broke out, she was sent to stay with nuns, eventually at a convent in Orleans. By the end of the war, two of her brothers were dead and she had lost touch with her sister.

“But I stayed in contact with my brother, Rene, who started a new life in Corsica,” she said.

She moved to Toul, near Nancy, to work in a jam factory before emigrating to Algeria in 1967.

Madeleine from Saint-Etienne was also given away, shortly after she was born, to a farming family near Tellancourt. “I didn’t know my parents; they didn’t want me,” she said. “The farmer took me in as a tiny baby for his daughter, who couldn’t have children, but it was her mother who looked after me.” When the Germans annexed the area in 1940 she moved to Saint-Etienne to work in a bolt factory. She never married, has no children and has lived in the same small fourth-floor apartment for the past 37 years.

Most puzzling of all, the Madeleines appear to have met in the past. In response to a police plea for documents, the brother of Madeleine from Vittel sent a photograph of her and another woman, taken around 1940. A sharp-eyed policeman noticed that the second woman appeared to be the other Madeleine — who herself agreed that it was her. But neither woman can recall meeting the other, nor where the picture was taken.

Madeleine from Vittel is unconvinced by her namesake’s story and has begun a legal action, charging identity theft. “I want her to give me back my name, my papers and my pension and explain why she’s been using my name for so long,” she said.

Madeleine from Saint-Etienne is equally vehement. “I don’t know this other woman. I’m not a bad person; I’m not a thief; I’ve worked all my life and if they take my pension away I will also take legal action.”

Police admit that even if DNA tests on the body of Anna Mores establish which Madeleine Mores is genuine, it will create a further headache. “What are we going to call the other one?” asked one gendarme.

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