France has lost one of its most reverered figures with the death of Abbe Pierre, the Roman Catholic priest who campaigned tirelessly for the homeless and was founder of the internationally renowned “Emmaus Movement” for the impoverished. He was born Henri-Antoine Groues, the son of a silk merchant, but renounced his wealth and began campaigning for the homeless. He shot to fame in the winter of 1954 when he made a radio appeal.
In an emotional address he said: “And when this evening in your beautiful homes, you kiss your little children with what you think is a a clear conscience, you are really fooling yourselves because in comparison with God you have the blood of the poor on your hands.”
His appeal set off a wave of sympathy and eventually took his now celebrated Emmaus chain of hostels onto the international stage . It currently has a presence in over 41 countries with more than 500 associations. The idea behind the movement is to promote self help projects, encouraging homeless people to collect, repair and re-sell second-hand furniture.
Abbe Pierre’s militant stance in favour of the poor over the years made him a national icon. With his trademark black cape, beret and walking stick he has been seen in numerous trouble spots promoting the disadvantaged.
In 2004 , 50 years after his first appeal, he continued to criticise the ineffectiveness of both national and local governments in dealing with poverty. He took his message wherever he thought someone would listen. His zeal and integrity caused him to be cherished in his home country as a modern-day saint. Indeed he has often been voted into the top three positions in polls to find France’s most popular person.
And it is a mark of his high regard that this month the French government has sent a bill to parliament that will establish housing as a right and has put the homeless issue firmly on the forthcoming presidential campaign agenda.