Justice in human shape

“My friends help me. 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 …”

Abbé Pierre'swords caught the consciousness of the French youthand attractedtheir attention to the hard reality of the poor’s life. He then helped thousands of homeless people with decent dwelling facilities and life chances.

Abbé Pierre was bornHenri Grouès on 5 August 1912 in a French Catholic family. He joined the Capuchin monks in 1930, but left the stream after eight years to become a priest in Grenoble. When World War II broke out in 1939, he was conscripted as a non-commissioned officer in the train transport corps.

During the holocaust in 1942, he joined the resistance movement and helped hiding Jewish people from the Nazi’s and Vichy police. Although arrested, he fled to North Africa to join the “Free French” led by Charles de Gaulle.

After the war, he joined French National Assembly but resigned after being disappointed at its performance. He then set up a charity “Emmaus” in 1949 with the slogan “giving people a bed and a reason to get out of it”. Charity wouldbecome effective only when people were helped to help themselves, he believed.

He hated charity becoming a “condescending gift”from the rich to the poor. And it would be of little benefitother than appeasing the consciousness of them, he stressed.

He was branded as a leftist when he said that charity funds should come from the ‘unneeded surpluses’ of the rich. He was frequently voted as the France’s most popular man, despite his opposition.

Catholics admired him for presenting the best aspects of livingthe Catholic faith. Still he remained critical of the Catholic Church’s conservatism, and didn’t support the enforced chastity of priests.

Being a humanitarian, hequestioned the nationalistic view of Jean-Marie Le Pen and believed thatFrance’s problems could not be attributed to immigrants. He always supported the cause of immigrants, especially their housing issues.

He saved many Jewish people from the Nazi police. He then vehemently opposed the far right in France.

Many criticised Abbé Pierre for his support to Roger Garaudy, whose book The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics claimed that Israel had exaggerated the horrors of holocaust and had used it as an excuse for mistreating the Palestinians.

Despite this, his reputation remained intact. It largely owed to his sincere belief in the equality of all humans.

In 1988, Abbé Pierre met representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss the difficult monetary and human issues brought by the huge “Third World debt”.

During the first Gulf War (1990–91), he directly tried to talk US President George HWBush and Iraq President Saddam Hussein out of war. Pierre died on 22 January 2007.