From building homes in shanty towns to helping to save rainforests, travelling to exotic locations for well-meaning projects has long been a gap-year rite of passage for many a 19-year-old. This year French volunteers have been set a more challenging task: to scour the world for orphans for childless families in France.
The volunteers - described as a Gallic Peace Corps - will be asked to put prospective parents in touch with abandoned children in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The government plan follows claims that France has been outflanked by Spain, Italy and the United States in the fiercely competitive world of international adoption.
However, critics question whether school and university leavers have the experience or tact for what are likely to be highly delicate missions.
“My qualm is that the legalities, moralities and ethics of inter-country adoption are very complex, and students coming out of university will not be prepared for that,” said Julia Fleming, of Oasis, the UK overseas adoption support group.
Rama Yade, the French Under-Secretary for Human Rights, said yesterday that the first group of volunteers would arrive in Cambodia next month before being sent to 20 other countries over the next year.
They will be based at French embassies under a programme financed in part by the Foreign Ministry and in part, Mrs Yade hopes, by private donations. “They are going to use their talent and their generosity in a fine cause with a mission to improve the access for children without parents and to help them to get out of institutions as quickly as possible.”
Ministers also hope that state intervention will curb the sort of initiative that sparked outrage last year when six members of Zoe's Ark, a small French charity, were arrested in Chad as they tried to fly 103 children back to France. They said the children were orphans from neighbouring Darfur. But it emerged that most were from Chad and a few were not orphans. The case illustrated what critics say are the risks of international adoption. “Everywhere there are unscrupulous intermediaries ready to steal babies and sell them to people wanting a child,” said Jean-Jacques Choulot, a paediatrician and author of the French Guide to Adoption.
Mrs Yade said: “My aim is to put order back in all this.” Her initiative follows the launch in 2005 of l'Agence Française de l'Adoption, a government agency based on a model developed in Scandinavia and Canada, meant to help couples in what is often an administrative and human minefield.
But childless French families claim that they are still at a disadvantage. A total of 30,000 families - mostly couples unable to have children but also families with children and single people - have been approved as adoptive parents by the authorities. With only about 800 French children adopted every year, most prospective parents look abroad. Last year, however, 3,162 foreign children were adopted by French families, a 20 per cent fall since 2006. French families say they have been pushed to the back of the queue in former colonies such as Vietnam and Mali because they do not have the diplomatic support or financial clout of wealthy Americans.