It was a country in tints
of greys and browns and blacks, a country still marked by the
ravages of war. Its buildings were dilapidated and many French
men, women, and children crowded together in makeshift housing
or slept in the streets. To add to the general misery, the winter
of 1954 was the coldest on record.
|The most loved French
|| It was 1954 and France was not the modern, gleaming
country it is now.
On one of those bleak and brutal
winter days a strong young voice, a voice filled with conviction
and a sense of urgency, floated out on the airwaves.
" Mes amis, au secours
! ( My friends, Help ! ) " , the voice appealed,
in a phrase that has since become famous. "Last night at
3 a.m. a woman died, frozen, on the Boulevard Sebastapol, clutching
in her hand the paper telling her she had been expelled from
her lodging. "
Listeners literally stopped in
their tracks, struck by the sincerity and the urgent nature of
the call for help. The rich in their limousines and the poor
in their rags flocked to the site designated for the collection
of whatever they had to offer : money, blankets, food. It was
the largest " insurrection of goodness " France had
ever seen, an enormous outpouring of generosity and solidarity.
The appeal was made in the name
of the Emmaüs movement which now has 41 communities all
over the world. The purpose of the association : recuperate and
refurbish used furniture and clothes to be sold at a low price
by " companions " who otherwise would have been sleeping
in the streets. The money collected is used to fund housing for
Behind the 1954 plea for help
was the founder of Emmaüs, a Roman Catholic priest called
born Henri Grouès to a pious and well-to-do Catholic family
in Lyons. At the age of 19, Grouès became a Capuchin monk,
pledging his life to poverty. Forced to leave the monastery for
health reasons, he joined the Resistance, helping Jews escape
France, and changed his name to Abbé Pierre.
Known for his cape and beret
and his cane, unshaven face, mischievous eyes, radiant smile,
total simplicity, rebellious spirit (disagreements with the church
hierarchy on celibacy and women in the priesthood) and his outbursts
of anger in the face of social injustice, Abbé Pierre
topped the list of France's most popular people for so many years
that he finally requested that his name be removed.
The Abbé, who died this
week at the age of 94, was admired by the French, whether Catholics
or non-believers. They admired the man and his life. They admired
his decision to opt for a life of austerity and devotion to others
when he could have opted for wealth. They admired his profound
spirituality and faith which he combined with his love of humans
and his knowledge of the way the world works (the Abbé
could have had another life as a coach on how to work the media).
They admired his simplicity. They admired his rebellion, his
fight for housing for all. He was not perfect : late in his life,
he defended negationist Roger Garaudy, a " mistake "
for which he later apologized.
His funeral service was a reflection
of the man and of the people who loved him, from the President
of France, deeply moved, to other dignitaries, and throes of
ordinary people, among them scores of Emmaus " Compagnons
". The three hour service was filled with the pomp and ceremony
inherent to the great cathedral but the Abbé's coffin
was a plain wood one, placed directly on the marble floor . On
it, his cape, walking stick, and beret.
You may have read a short article
in the International Herald Tribune about the Abbé
Pierre. In France, the coverage was immense, from pages and pages
of articles in French newspapers and magazines to radio and television
specials to the televised funeral service transmitted live, showing
unforgettable images of the people of Paris applauding his coffin
and waving good-by.
We can't always know everything
about another society from reading the U.S. papers which, understandably,
don't have the time or space to devote to every single person
of importance in every single country.
Which is why I'm happy to tell
you a bit more about the extraordinary life and legacy of the
Abbé Pierre who was in a very real way the conscience
of the French. He had a simple goal housing for all
and sadly he didn't succeed. Still today, France has too many
homeless and poor. But Abbé Pierre made housing for the
poor an issue no French government can ever again ignore.
and the U.S. press...
|| Funny what
editors choose or not - to put in the day's news.
On Thursday, January 18, President
Jacques Chirac presided over a moving ceremony at the Pantheon
to honor the 2740 French men and women honored with the title
of" Righteous Among the nations " by the Yad Vashem
Memorial in Israel to persons having saved Jews at the peril
of their life. Most of these people were acting according to
their conscience and did not even wish to be singled out. Who
would know that, according to Simone Veil, the president of the
Foundation for the memory of the Shoah and herself a Holocaust
survivor, the greatest number of the " Righteous "
are to be found in France ?
Readers of U.S. newspapers know
all about French anti-Semitism, past and present. They
know about Vichy and how the zealousness of France's own policemen
led to the arrest and deportation of innocent Jewish men, women,
and children to the death camps. In 1995, President Chirac recognized
for the first time since the War " faults committed by the
State " on the sad anniversary of the roundup of the Vélodrome
d'hiver on July 16, 1942.
At the Pantheon, Chirac urged
France to look at its history " in the face ". History
is a " block " he said in his speech.
The ceremony honoring the Righteous
was a solemn occasion paying tribute to the quiet and courageous
French men and women who hid Jewish men, women, and children
from the Nazis.
One day after the ceremony, the
International Herald Tribune ran stories on the latest
dissension in the French Socialist Party and the trials and tribulations
of a French restaurant owner in New York.
There was not one line about
the commemoration by the French President of the 2740 French
people honored by the Israel memorial Yad Vashem, as " Righteous
among the Nations ".
An odd omission.
For that story of hitherto untold
good acts is also part of France's history.
These people are France's heroes.
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