France's Voice of the Voiceless

  • Share
  • Read Later
Haley / Sipa Press

Abbe Pierre

The people of France agree on very little, but for decades one touchstone of national feeling has been respect and love for a frail, bearded, beret-wearing force of nature named Abbé Pierre. The death on Monday, at the age of 94, of France's "voice of the voiceless" has inserted a pause in a divisive presidential election campaign as France pays homage to a man of unerring courage and compassion; a man who embodied the best of French traditions.

In a land of foxes, Abbé Pierre was a hedgehog. His one big idea: that the plight of the poor and homeless calls for constant outrage and action. His organization, Emmaüs, created in 1949 to enlist the homeless themselves in the work of building shelters and a future, is now present in 35 countries. Every public figure in France has lamented his passing. President Jacques Chirac said that France "loses an immense figure, a conscious, an incarnation of goodness."

The offspring of a well-off family in Lyons, Henri Grouès was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi to commit his life to what he called "absolute Love." Chronic bad health made it impossible for him to continue his original choice of staying in a Capucine monastery. As it turned out, the secular world proved a fertile field for action. He joined the French Resistance during the war in Grenoble, and helped Jews, forced laborers and others escape from occupied France; it was in that capacity that he took the name Abbé Pierre. In 1944 he moved to Algiers to join Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who named him chaplain of the Free French navy. After the war he was enlisted to become a deputy in the National Assembly, but once installed in the gritty banlieues of post-war Paris, he soon decided to fight his battle from the trenches rather than the parquets of power.

He did it with a simple directness. His call to arms against the plight of the homeless in the bitter winter of 1954, after a woman froze to death in Paris with her eviction notice in hand, remains one of the most broadly cited expressions of human compassion in the French language. Once he became famous, he was happy to embarrass those who honored him into taking real action. In 1992 he was named a Grand Officer in the French Legion of Honor, but refused to wear the insignia until the government found a humane solution for the plight of 300 African families who had been tossed into the street. The French saw their own sense of themselves as moral actors confirmed when Abbé Pierre went on hunger strikes for the poor, when he injected his moral force into noble battles for human rights or against the destruction of agricultural surpluses.

Abbé Pierre's death comes just weeks after activists for the homeless erected scores of tents along Paris's Canal Saint Martin to call attention to their plight. Chirac earlier this month proposed that the "right to lodging" be inscribed in the French constitution, a measure that Abbé Pierre had long advocated. Now the government has proposed that the enabling legislation be named the "law of Abbé Pierre." Thus conceived, it is sure to sail through parliament on January 30, a concrete legacy to a life that transfigured France.