Champion of the homeless: the 'conscience of France' bids adieu

Described by many as the modern Saint Francis of Assisi, Abbé Pierre died yesterday at the age of 94. But his reputation as the most popular man in France will live on
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For many years, the most popular man in France was not a footballer or a singer or an actor. The most popular man in France, in poll after poll, was a stooped old priest in a beret, with a soft, determined voice and a mischievous look in his eye.

That old man - L'Abbé Pierre, or "Priest Peter" - died yesterday, aged 94. The outpouring of grief extended from President Jacques Chirac - "he was an immense figure, our conscience, the incarnation of goodness" - to the obscure and homeless on the streets of Paris. One 22-year-old man with a dog on a string said: "I haven't seen my own family for ages but it is as if my grandfather had died".

Abbé Pierre, a former Resistance hero and then campaigner for the homeless and dispossessed, stopped being chosen as France's most popular man five years ago. He asked for his name to be withdrawn from the shortlist. It was about time, he said, that France found a younger hero. He was succeeded, variously, by Zinedine Zidane, footballer, and Yannick Noah, tennis-player turned pop-singer.

Abbé Pierre has been described as a modern Saint Francis of Assisi. There will inevitably be moves within the French church to persuade the Vatican to canonise him, just as he was canonised by the media and popular opinion long ago.

He was a saint for our times: a secular saint, who detested his celebrity but knew how to exploit it. He represented, to many French people, all that was best about the Catholic church, while campaigning against the church's teachings on contraception, homosexuality and priestly chastity. "Anyone who refuses to use a condom is a swine," he once said - not the usual message from the pulpits of France.

He caused another rumpus - and premature allegations of senility - 11 years ago by defending a philosopher, and personal friend, who had written a book attacking Israel and questioning the Holocaust. He later apologised.

His comments seemed utterly out of character. The Abbé Pierre had smuggled Jews to safety during the Second World war. He had campaigned ferociously against racism and the Far Right in France. Despite his apology, his public defence of the Holocaust revisionist book still puzzles, and disturbs, many people.

Abbé Pierre called for an "insurrection of the good". Outside France, he is best known as the founder of the "Emmaus" movement, present in 41 countries, which seeks to inspire the poor (or physically deprived) and the rich (or spiritually deprived) to succour one another. The slogan of the British branch of the movement is: "Giving people a bed and a reason to get out of it".

The Abbé's celebrity began in 1954 with a radio broadcast in which he said a young homeless woman had frozen to death on the streets of the capital. "Friends, I need your help ..." he began.

Last week, the French government proposed a draft law to make homelessness illegal or, at least, to give everyone a legally enforceable right to a roof over their heads. That was something Abbé Pierre had long fought for. The centre-right government said yesterday that the new law would be named after him.

This is pure hypocrisy. The bill was hurried through this month for electoral reasons, following a highly mediagenic campaign by another pressure group. More than half a century after Abbé Pierre first awoke the country's conscience, there are still officially reckoned to be at least 86,000 homeless people in France, including 16,000 children.

Abbé Pierre knew how to use celebrity; but he was also deeply suspicious of it. "If you want to play a nasty trick on someone," he said, "make them famous."

Many thousands of French people were encouraged to help the poor by Abbé Pierre's example. For much of the rest of the nation, he sometimes complained, admiring Abbé Pierre provided an alibi for doing nothing much.

The fact that he was "succeeded" as Most Popular Man in France by a man of North African origin and a man of west Indian origin - both admirable people but not typical of the success of French racial minorities - suggests that Abbé Pierre had a point. He was born, as Henri Grouès, into a wealthy, devout, business family in Lyon on 5 August 1912. As a child, he said that he wanted to become "either a missionary or a bandit". He became a little of both.

First, he became a Capuchin monk in 1930. He abandoned the contemplative life after eight miserable years to become a priest. As a curate in Grenoble in 1942, he began to hide Jewish children whose parents had been arrested by the Germans and the French police. He created an escape network and among those he helped was Jacques de Gaulle, brother of the Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle.

Pursued by the collaborationist Vichy regime, he joined the Resistance under the assumed name "Abbé Pierre" - a name he kept for the rest of his life. He was arrested, escaped and finally made his way to join De Gaulle's Free French in Algeria.

After the war, he became, in his own words, a "very ineffectual" member of the national assembly. He began the Emmaus movement by building a makeshift house in 1949. The aim was to create a "militant" charity, that would help the poor to help themselves by "harvesting" - sometimes by doubtfully legal means - the unneeded "surpluses" of the rich.

Many other homes for the homeless followed. One of his first lieutenants was a former prisoner who had threatened to commit suicide. Abbé Pierre told him: "I have nothing to give you. You no longer value your life so you might as well use it to help others."

The Abbé's radio broadcast in the freezing winter of 1954 propelled him to national celebrity.

"My friends, help me," he said. "A woman has just frozen to death at three this morning, on the pavement of the Boulevard Sebastopol, clutching the document by which she was expelled from her home the day before ..."

There was a national outcry. The government announced a plan to construct 12,000 "basic" homes. For several years, Abbé Pierre became a kind of national conscience, a reminder that the French state - and the French church - did not always respect their promises of Republican fraternity or Christian charity.

Abbé Pierre was never an orthodox theologian and only briefly a parish priest. He believed the spiritual grew out of the physical. "To fight for my own bread may be materialism. To fight for bread for others is the beginning of spirituality," he wrote.

By the late 1950s, he grew tired of his fame and virtually disappeared from public life until the mid-Eighties. In 1984, he appealed once again to the national conscience, pointing out that France had more homeless than 30 years earlier. To his astonishment, he found the media, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, remembered his appeal of 1954. He became an instant hero to young French, even those drifting away from the church.

In the following years, he inspired the creation of a network of "restaurants de coeur" - good-quality soup kitchens for the poor - by the comedian, Coluche. He stood up to Jean-Marie Le Pen's suggestions that all France's ills could be traced to immigration, and brown and black skins. Twice in public, he hold M. Le Pen to "shut up". To be racist, Abbé Pierre said, was to "invest in the wrong kind of anger".

He castigated the church for refusing to allow contraception, married priests or homosexual families. He refused to accept his promotion to grand officier in the Legion d'Honneur in 1992 because the Socialist government would not house a group of illegal immigrant African families.

In December 1994 - at the age of 82 - he led a group of housing rights militants when they broke into an empty building in the chic 6th Arrondissement of Paris. "A homeless man who sees an empty building has an absolute right to enter it. Squatting is morally justified," he said.

Accused of being too far to the Left, he said: "Right, Left, I don't know anything about all that. The only extreme I support is upwards (pointing towards heaven)." And then he tumbled headlong into controversy.

In April 1996, a left-wing philosopher, and old friend of Abbé Pierre, Roger Garaudy, wrote a book suggesting that the state of Israel had exaggerated the extent of the Holocaust and had, in any case, exploited the suffering of European Jews to justify ill-treatment of people in Palestine. Abbé Pierre defended the book without having read it or grasping that it had been published by a company that specialised in Holocaust-denying literature. After reading it, he still partially defended it. He said the Holocaust, even if "mathematically" smaller than generally accepted, was an "abomination" but he could not justify the "suicidal" policies of the Israeli government. A few weeks later, he apologised unreservedly and withdrew for a time to a monastery in Italy. The incident remains puzzling. Suggestions that Abbé Pierre was a secret anti-Semite do not hold water. More likely, he stumbled unthinkingly into a linguistic and political quagmire. His reputation recovered only for him to plunge into a different kind of controversy three years later.

A long book of conversations about his life and works contained the following three or four lines. "I have known sexual desire, and have on very rare occasions satisfied it but the satisfaction was truly unsatisfactory because I did not feel I was being true to myself." Abbé Pierre refused to elaborate but that was taken to be an admission that he had occasionally broken his vows of chastity. Far from discrediting him, his friends suggested, the admission made France's favourite priest seem "more genuine and more human".

Why was he so popular? Only just over half of the French now say they are Catholic. Only one in 12 of those goes to church. The French church is, mostly, conservative and unadventurous. And yet, Abbé Pierre managed to be popular with traditional Catholics and militant non-Catholics alike. The French love a passionate rebel. To non-Catholics, he made the censorious mainstream church seem hypocritical. To Catholics, he gave flesh and blood to their faith.

Internationally, Abbé Pierre was one of the first people to preach that the condescending charity of the rich was morally destructive, to both rich and poor. The dispossessed must rebuild their own lives and self-esteem, he said. The rich must risk more than the occasional conscience-salving contribution to charity. This lesson, he suggested, applied to rich and poor individuals but also to rich and poor countries.