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Mixed-race baby switch mothers sue for millions

Eighteen years after giving birth in the same clinic but going home with the wrong babies, two mothers are suing for €12 million (Dh57 million) in compensation after bringing up each other's daughters. Colin Randall reports from Nice

NICE, FRANCE // Eighteen years after giving birth in the same clinic but going home with the wrong babies, two mothers are suing for €12 million (Dh57 million) in compensation after bringing up each other's daughters.

Babies switched at birth is a theme that has long been the stuff of fiction, inspiring writers from Gilbert and Sullivan and Mark Twain to the makers of Desperate Housewives.

In the case of Manon and Mathilde, teenagers living a few kilometres apart inland from the French Riviera, real life has imitated art.

As newborn infants both girls contracted jaundice and, because of a shortage of space, were placed in the same cot while receiving lamp therapy at the clinic in Cannes. The babies, who had not been fitted with identification bracelets, were mistakenly returned after their treatment to the arms of each other's mother.

When Manon's mother, Sophie Serrano, pointed out that her fair-skinned daughter now looked darker, she was assured that this was a natural side-effect of the lighting used in the light treatment. Ms Serrano says the clinic's staff also brushed aside a weight difference and the fact that Manon's hair seemed longer.

As it gradually became clear that Manon was of mixed race, physically unlike either of the people she regarded as her biological parents, the family had to endure taunts that she was "the postman's daughter", the product of an extramarital affair.

Her supposed father found it difficult to bond with her and eventually, when she was 10, insisted on DNA tests that established there was no biological connection with him or Ms Serrano. By then, the couple were divorced.

"I had the impression I had lost everything," Ms Serrano, who has two other children, told Le Figaro newspaper. "I was very frightened that they'd take away my daughter [Manon, the girl she had brought up] and I was also worried about the girl I'd brought into the world."

Both families live in the Alpes-Maritimes area. Contact was made between them but did not last even though Ms Serrano says she "instinctively" loved her natural daughter Mathilde. All agreed a further exchange so long after birth was "unthinkable".

"Perhaps one day my [biological] daughter will want to see me again," Ms Serrano said in an interview with another newspaper, Le Parisien. "I have brought up three children but in my heart I have a fourth."

Manon is happy with the woman she has always called "maman" and said: "My first thought was 'will I have to leave my family?'. I couldn't bear to be separated from my mother, brother and sister. Without them. I'd feel empty. I'm the victim of something mad and unique that no one can understand."

An initial complaint led to an investigation but no further action was taken because there had been no deliberate intent to mislead and no improper voluntary exchange of babies.

Ms Serrano, who believes an unreliable and alcoholic nursing assistant was responsible for the initial error, refused to let the matter drop and began civil proceedings, saying she wanted those responsible identified.

She claims to have suffered depression as a result of the mix-up to the extent that she had to give up her job, move house and incur debts. "All my children have been seeing psychiatrists; the damage is enormous."

The clinic's administration is contesting the civil action. It describes the size of the claim for damages and interest as "speculative" and, while accepting that an error was made, says the mothers bear responsibility for not acting sooner.

Ms Serrano's lawyer, Gilbert Collard, told Le Figaro it was "scandalous" for the clinic to suggest - as also reported by the newspaper - she had another lover at the time and was therefore not really astonished that Manon bore no resemblance to her then husband.

Mr Collard said it was the clinic's duty to ensure babies were returned after medical treatment to the right parents. Taking steps to prevent such a switch was the least that could be expected of a health establishment.

The family in which Mathilde has grown up declines to comment.

French media reports have drawn parallels with the plot of an award-winning 1988 film, La vie est un long fleuve tranquille (Life is a Long Quiet River) in which two babies are switched at birth, one growing up in a prosperous middle-class family, the other in a poor household existing on benefits.