French priest's 1954 appeal to fight homelessness still topical 70 years on

Europe AFP - -
FEB 1, 2024 LISTEN
AFP - -

On 1 February, 1954, Abbé Pierre made a passionate plea for France to help its homeless people. Seventy years on, the priest remains a popular figure and his fight to defend homeless and poorly housed people is as pertinent as ever.

"My friends, your help is needed, a woman has just frozen to death tonight" announced the young Catholic priest Abbé Pierre on Radio Luxembourg on 1 February, 1954 "she died clutching [her] eviction order".

His cry for help provoked what would later be called an "uprising of kindness" as donations and items for the homeless flooded in.

His appeal pushed the French government to take action – three days later it released 10 billion francs (€2.3 billion) to build 10,000 emergency homes, and approved a law forbidding evictions during the winter. 

"His 1954 appeal was an appeal to humanity; it was blatantly true and remains blatantly topical," Laurent Desmard, Honorary President of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, told France's AFP news agency.

"The people who listened to him had lived through exodus, the deprivations of war and were very sensitive to the pain of people living on the streets during that extremely cold period," recalls Desmard – Abbé Pierre's former private secretary.

An inspiration

Abbé Pierre,  whose real name was Father Henri-Antoine Grouès, founded  the first Emmaus community to help homeless men in Paris, in 1949. He had been a member of the French Resistance during WWII and became an MP at the end of the war.

He died in 2007, aged 94. But his fight to defend and help the most disadvantaged continues to inspire activists and artists alike.

In 2023, a biopic, comic strip, and a reprinted biography were devoted to him.

His speeches, meanwhile, are regularly shared on social media, including by younger people on the platform TikTok.

French rapper Nekfeu included an extract of an Abbé Pierre speech from 1984 – in which the priest railed against "people empty the plates of others to fill up their own" – in the song Nique les clones (Screw the clones).

"I know what I must say to those people: you are the first to be violent and provocative," Abbé Pierre said.

Still topical 

 In a 2021 survey,  Abbé Pierre topped the list of the most influential French figures of the last 40 years, ahead of Simone Veil, François Mitterrand and Johnny Hallyday.

"He would get really fired up whenever there was a battle to be fought," says Desmard, "that's what made him a sort of icon; he speaks to today's generation."

Abbé Pierre had the ability "to get people moving and that resonates in today's society where people are looking to give meaning to what they do," says Nicolas Sueur, President of Emmaüs France.

For Nathalie Latour, head of a federation of some 900 solidarity groups (FAS), the films and tributes show above all that "the issues he was fighting for are, unfortunately, still very topical".

Shortly after becoming president in June 2017, Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to end homelessness in his first year of office, but it did not materialise.

According to the latest figures from the Fondation Abbé Pierre, 330,000 people were homeless in France in 2022 – twice as many as in 2012. The charity registered a record number of homeless children – 2,822 – in November 2023. 686 of them were under the age of three. 

Laurent Desmard believes that Abbé Pierre's 1 February appeal is as meaningful as ever, given the "catastrophic situation" homeless people are in.