The trouble began in 2016. When Jeanne Pouchain’s passport application was declined, she was annoyed – but assumed she must have forgotten an important piece of paperwork.
Several weeks later, at a doctor’s appointment in her town of Saint-Joseph, outside Lyon in south-east France, both Pouchain, then 53, and her GP were perplexed when his computer spat out her carte vitale, the green card that gives access to the French public health system. Pouchain put it down to a technical blip. She assumed that was also the reason her pharmacy suggested she would have to pay in full for her diabetes drugs.
It seemed like a series of annoying coincidences; the kind of red tape many in France find themselves tangled up in at one time or another in a country notorious for bureaucracy. It was irritating but would, she assumed, eventually be resolved.
But when the former cleaning company boss received her bank statement and discovered her business account had been plunged into the red, even though she had paid in dozens of cheques, she started to become seriously concerned. “I knew money should have been going into my account, but there was nothing in it. So I went to the bank. It’s only a small branch; I’ve been with them for 27 or so years and they all know me,” she says. “The director came out and told me, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t exist.’ I said: ‘But I am here, you know me.’ He told me: ‘I don’t have an explanation for this. But what can I do?’ He said there was no record of a Jeanne Pouchain and no accounts in that name. “They had all been closed. He wanted me to hand back my chequebook, but I refused. As we were leaving, he gave me an envelope full of cheques worth about €14,000 that should have been paid in, apologised, and said there was nothing he could do.
“There was no explanation. I knew something wasn’t right. All my life, I’ve been precise about everything: keeping records, documents, tax receipts. I like everything to be correct. Pierre-Jean, my husband, said there must have been some mix-up with papers and not to worry, we’d sort it out.”
Over the next few months, Pouchain noticed odd, annoying things happening, but assumed it was nothing more than a glitch in a computer somewhere. She carried on working and driving, and applied again for her passport, submitting even more documents. But in October 2017, Pouchain’s passport application was returned, marked “REFUSED”. There was no explanation.
Then on 12 November 2017, two bailiffs turned up at Pouchain’s home with a recorded delivery letter addressed to Pierre-Jean. She had no idea that she was signing for a document announcing her own death.
The letter informed her that a lawyer in a court case relating to her cleaning business had told the court that she had died, aged 53, in February 2016. Somehow, this unverified claim – there was no official death certificate, how could there be? – was allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged.
Pouchain was shaken. “I thought I was going to collapse. How could I be dead? Someone said I was dead – did the judge just believe them, with no death certificate?” she asks. “I felt like I’d been punched in the face. But we thought it would be quickly resolved. I went to my doctor, who gave me a certificate to say I was still alive, then we went to the administrative offices at Saint-Étienne and reported there had been an irregularity. But all they said was that nobody can be declared dead who isn’t dead and it wasn’t within their competence to deal with it.”
Since then, Pouchain has spent more than three and a half years engaged in an existential battle to prove to the French authorities what remains obvious to all – her family, friends, neighbours, the local mayor, and even visiting strangers like me: that she is very much alive.
As she opens the electric gates of her home, surrounded by blossoming cherry trees on a chilly morning earlier this year, Pouchain greets me briskly. “If you’ve come to talk about my death… well, you can see for yourself, I’m not dead. If you want to know how we arrived here, then let’s talk.
“This has been my nightmare every day for the last three years,” Pouchain says, settling into a chair and lighting a long, thin cigarette. “It’s like Groundhog Day: it’s the first thing I think about every morning, and the first thing my husband and I talk about. Every day is a day without end.”
For Pouchain, being “administratively dead” means having no access to the public health system and no medicines for her diabetes and thyroid condition unless she pays for them privately. Dead people don’t need cars or cash, so her driving licence has also been cancelled, and neither her expired passport nor her carte d’identité can be renewed, ruling out travel. Even leaving her house to go shopping is a risk, as French citizens are required to carry identification papers. If they are stopped and cannot show them, they can be fined. During the Covid lockdowns, when police checks increased, Pouchain was virtually housebound. Job applications are also impossible as she has no proof of address and her name has been taken off the electricity bill, the item that acts as an “open sesame” to all French bureaucratic procedures. As things stand, she will not be getting a pension.
“People complain about Covid lockdowns, but that has been my life for the last three years,” says Pouchain. “I’m better now, but I’m not proud to admit there were some days I couldn’t even be bothered to wash and get dressed, or do my hair, and I always used to take care of myself.” She gives a defeated shrug. “In any case, I don’t go out; I am getting bigger and bigger.” Her weight has ballooned by 30kg (4.7 stone), and the stress has led to severe depression, including three attempts to take her own life. She admits that some days it can feel as if she is going a little mad, caught up in a grotesque conspiracy designed to drive her to a real grave. “I used to be on antidepressants and anti-anxiety tablets but I cannot afford them now. I can do nothing. I have the right to nothing and I have nothing despite having worked all my life. How can they have wiped me from the face of the Earth?”
Though she has now been officially “dead” for five years, the story of Jeanne Pouchain’s demise began in 2000 when she was running her own business specialising in high-end maintenance and cleaning services for luxury homes and offices in Lyon. Pouchain estimates she employed a total of 120 people over the two decades she ran the business. She was, she insists, a firm but fair employer. “Staff came and went, they moved, retired, but I never laid anyone off. I had a good reputation, and I did well. Around 90% of my employees were women, often in difficult situations with little money and children; if they had a problem, I was there for them. I ran my business as if it was my family, and that was a mistake. I didn’t put enough distance between us.”
In autumn 2000, Pouchain lost a contract to clean an office complex for start-up firms. Under French employment law, when a new company takes over a contract, existing staff are transferred as part of the deal. Pouchain says she carried out 35 such transfers during her 20 years in the business and had a solicitor and an accountant to deal with the process. In this case, there was just one staff worker to transfer, whom we shall call Madame H. She had worked for Pouchain since May 1999.
“We had a good relationship. She was a hard worker, serious. She worked all hours to pay for her children’s studies. One time she went away on holiday with her husband and sent me a postcard saying she couldn’t wait to get back to work. I made the transfer, the paperwork was all done and it seemed to go well. She officially stopped working for me on 31 December. From 2 January 2001, she was supposed to be working for the new company.”
Four months later, however, Pouchain says she received a timesheet from Mme H demanding payment for 200 hours of cleaning in January 2001. Pouchain responded that Mme H no longer worked for her, but when she failed to pay she was taken to an industrial tribunal. Pouchain plucks documents from a pile of yellow folders and grey files on her large dining table. “I have all the records. I keep everything. It’s very complicated.”
In 2004, an industrial tribunal ordered Pouchain to pay Mme H €14,000, having ruled that the employment transfer had not been carried out correctly, contrary to what Pouchain claimed and still believes. However, because Mme H’s lawyer had brought the case against Pouchain’s trade name, Select Services, and not her personally, the ruling was subsequently declared null and void.
Five years later, Mme H made another claim, this time against Pouchain personally, but the industrial tribunal threw out the new case, stating that in its view the matter had been judged and was now closed. In 2013, Pouchain was informed that the case against her had been dropped. She was looking at a €100,000 legal bill, but was just glad it was all over.
Later, Pouchain’s lawyer, Sylvain Cormier, tells me the solicitor’s letter informing Pouchain the industrial tribunal case was being dropped was probably a phoney pause, while Mme H’s lawyer drew breath to relaunch the case. Sometime afterwards, the case returned to court – where it was said that Pouchain had died and that her “heirs” would be asked to settle. “This should not have happened,” Cormier says.
After several early attempts to correct the record failed (they were deemed “beyond the competence” of the administrative courts), Pouchain says it took some time to find a lawyer who would take on her case, before Cormier agreed to act on her behalf.
“When Mme Pouchain first told me her story, I found it hard to believe,” says Cormier. “I said, ‘It’s just not possible.’ But I read the files and it is – everything she told me was unbelievable but perfectly true. It appears there was no certificate of death, it was just taken on someone’s word. Nobody checked.”
Pouchain’s case is extremely unusual, but she is not the first person caught in a fight to prove that rumours of her death have been greatly exaggerated. In 2013, an Ohio judge ruled that Donald E Miller Jr would have to stay legally deceased, even though Miller was sitting in the courtroom to hear his fate, perfectly healthy. He had been declared dead in 1994 after having disappeared in 1986, owing thousands of dollars in unpaid child support. His ex-wife had requested Miller be declared dead so she would eligible for social security benefits. When Miller returned – he had been working out of state – he was told that Ohio cannot reverse death certificates after more than three years.
In India, a farmer called Lal Bihari spent nearly 20 years battling to prove he was alive between 1975 and 1994. Bihari even threw himself a funeral to draw attention to his plight, and founded an organisation called the Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People to represent others accidentally declared dead. Bihari was awarded an Ig Nobel peace prize in 2003 for his work and, in January, his story was turned into a Bollywood film, Kaagaz.
Having thought she had drawn a line under the employment wrangle in 2013, Pouchain decided to wind up her cleaning business and set up a small restaurant in the family’s traditional stone house, home to five generations of her husband’s family. “I like cooking, and it was to be a family restaurant at the weekends,” she says. Pierre-Jean, 58, a graduate of the elite French grande école, Sciences Po, continued to run his consultancy business in an office extension to their home.
Pouchain slaps the nine-page document she signed for on 12 November 2017, the one informing her husband of her death, on to the growing pile on the white tablecloth in front of me. She runs her finger along the text. It reads: “Following the death of Madame Jeanne Pouchain…” The industrial tribunal case had been reopened on 25 February 2016 without Pouchain’s knowledge, and, as she had supposedly died before it was resolved, her “heirs”, Pierre-Jean and their son Hugo, 28, were ordered to pay Mme H’s demand for almost €20,000 in back pay, compensation, and redundancy, plus a further €15,000 damages.
“It was a trap, an ambush. She couldn’t win the proceedings while I was alive, so she had me declared dead,” she claims. Fifteen days later, her husband’s and son’s bank accounts were frozen.
Pierre-Jean shows me a photograph of a polished black 2002 Porsche Boxster, his pride and joy. At the end of August 2019, bailiffs took it away to settle part of Mme H’s claim. “It was worth €24,000, but they damaged it and sold it for €7,000,” he says. He points out that when the couple married they did so under what the French call a “séparation des biens” agreement, meaning their personal belongings were owned individually. So how could they take his car to pay his wife’s supposed debts, I ask. He shrugs. “We have both worked hard all our lives. We were not born with silver spoons in our mouths,” he adds, quietly.
Pouchain has sold all her jewellery, including her wedding and engagement rings and, hardest of all to part with, her son’s baptism “medal”. Fortunately, Pierre-Jean has an income from his consultancy, but nothing feels secure. “They have even threatened to take our home,” he says. “It’s like some kind of personal vengeance at work that we don’t understand,” he says. “They seem out to ruin us, and nobody cares.”
The subsequent stress caused a rift between Pouchain and Hugo, a biological engineer, who on the day before my visit had flown to French Guiana to take up a new job. Hugo and his mother were reconciled shortly before he left. “He didn’t want to stay in France. He’s disgusted with his country,” Pouchain says. Normally she would have gone to see him, but she can’t: she still doesn’t have a passport.
By now, I’ve been going over the fine details for several hours with Pouchain and papers are scattered all over the embroidered tablecloth. Pouchain lights another cigarette. She has briefly recounted her life-death story many times to French journalists, but never in this much detail. She recently started writing it down, partly as an aide-memoire of the chronology and details, and partly as a cathartic exercise. “I need to get it out,” she says.
Life was not kind to Pouchain even before she was pronounced dead. Born in Algeria, she never knew her parents (she suspects the woman she called her aunt was actually her mother) and was brought to France at 14 days old and placed with a foster family in Lyon, who had seven children of their own and did not want or need another mouth to feed. “It was a toxic, violent childhood that lasted until I ran away aged 23 to get married. What happened to me as a child taught me the blackness in some people’s souls,” she says. “It was in infant school that I learned that my only way out of this nightmare was to work at school.”
After her baccalauréat, she did a business diploma. “The final exam was in Bourg-en-Bresse [an hour away], but I had no money for transport or a hotel, so I hitchhiked and slept the night under a bridge. I still passed the exam. I was going to leave for Australia, but was introduced to Pierre-Jean at a party, and it was love at first sight.” They married in 1988. “If Pierre-Jean threw me out, I’d be on the streets with nothing,” she says.
Pouchain’s airy dining room is an emporium of seaside knick-knacks: seascape paintings, miniature wooden yachts and mobiles, fish ornaments and lighthouses, and large plaster figurines of trawlermen in Breton shirts. On the wall of the terrace beyond the french windows, a friend has painted a beach scene. Pouchain says she loves the sea, but Covid rules restricting anyone from travelling more than 10km have been in place for months when we meet, and even in non-Covid times Pouchain, lacking identity papers, is constantly afraid of being stopped by the police. “As I can’t go to the seaside, my friend thought she’d bring it to me,” she says.
In France, as in the UK, deaths are confirmed by a doctor and must be registered with the local mairie (town hall) and entered into the civil register within 24 hours. The mairie issues a death certificate, and it is then up to relatives or their legal representative to notify the tax, health and social security authorities as well as banks and others by sending them a copy.
Until last year, when the French statistics agency Insee began compiling details of deaths since 1970 from local authority records, there was no central register, and only family members could request details from the mairie where the death was recorded. Insee says its list of the past 30 years is “exhaustive”. It also initially says that Pouchain is on the list of dead people “but has not died”. When I question this, an Insee spokesperson replies, saying: “Sorry, we made a mistake, she’s not on the dead list.” So I ask if she is on their list of living people. “No, she is not, and sorry, alas we have no more information on this subject.” There is no record of any death certificate being issued at her local mairie.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the 20-year industrial tribunal saga, nobody seems to be able to comprehend or explain how Pouchain came to be declared dead, or why the court that made that declaration appeared to do so without any proof. Or why, once the obvious error was made, it cannot be rectified. Pouchain has no idea who informed her bank, social security, and other administrative offices she was dead, and has been unable to find out how they were able to do it without a death certificate. In fact, nobody seems to have a clue. “It’s the sort of thing that sounds so ridiculous when you tell people – they think it’s impossible, idiotic – but that has been our reality for the last three years,” she says. “When the gendarmes came to take Pierre-Jean’s car, I cried and pleaded with them and explained what had happened, and the gendarme said it wasn’t possible that I could be declared dead, just like that. Then he looked on the central database and he said, ‘I wouldn’t drive if I were you, because you don’t exist. You don’t have a licence.’”
Pouchain’s lawyer, Cormier, has now filed a legal complaint for fraud and false declarations in the criminal court and a separate case in the civil court to stop Mme H seizing any more of Pierre-Jean’s property. The earliest hearing will be on 31 August, when Cormier hopes to have Pouchain administratively resurrected, but he says it could take another two years for an investigating judge to find out what happened.
Cormier says Pouchain has acted in good faith throughout. “It’s a histoire de fou [a mad story]. I’ve never come across anything like this before. I think we will get there in the end, little by little, and we will establish that Mme Pouchain is perfectly alive and there have been lies told and mistakes made.” Cormier has brought the new action on the basis that this was a deliberate error.
Whether this is the case will be a matter for a judge to decide, but Pouchain says she finds it hard to believe Mme H, who is 70, is driving a case that feels to her like persecution. “Even when we later ended up at the industrial tribunal, she said she had nothing to say against me; she told the judge she’d worked for me and been treated perfectly normally, that I’d been fair,” she says.
Pascale Revel, Mme H’s lawyer, declined multiple requests to comment on the case, saying she was “bound by professional secrecy”. She passed on my requests for an interview with Mme H, adding that her client was “obviously free to make her own choice to contact you or not”. There has been no word. At a preliminary court hearing last October, Revel accused Pouchain of playing dead with the connivance of her family to avoid paying Mme H, something Pouchain vehemently denies.
Several courts, including the Cour de Cassation, the highest in the French judicial system, have examined the case and conceded there appeared to be “irregularities”, but deemed it was beyond their competence to bring Pouchain back from the dead. So who can? Pouchain’s local MP’s office tells me they have taken up her case. The MP, Valéria Faure-Muntian, told Pouchain she has spoken to the justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, who is a member of the French bar and will keep a close eye on the case. For now, Pouchain must wait to be officially resurrected.
A week after we meet, she calls to thank me for listening to her story. It sounds as if she is crying; she is distraught because she can only have a Covid vaccination if she joins the waiting list as a homeless person.
“My life will never be the same after this – even if I am resurrected. For 20 years, I have been harassed over this case, and finally they have nailed the coffin shut by declaring my death. I will keep fighting because I have to, but I have to find a way to rebuild myself.”
When we speak again in late June, there is some good news. She tells me she has finally been able to get her first Covid vaccination, although she had to pay €150 for it, and will do again for her second in July. She has even managed to find a black humour in her situation: “I wouldn’t want to die of Covid before I’ve had the chance to be brought back to life.”