Adam Ash

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Most admired Frenchman dies

The Death of Abbé Pierre: Measured Impertinence -- by Jean-Marcel Bouguereau/Le Nouvel Observateur

It took fifty years for Abbé Pierre to see his lifetime battle for the homeless and those living in substandard housing bear results, with the law that should be voted in by Parliament very soon on what has been called "the right to shelter," and which, finally, will bear Abbé Pierre's name.

But it was something else that Henri Grouès demanded before the Resistance transformed him into Abbé Pierre. He had called for an "insurgency of kindness," by crying out for true generosity during that famous winter of 1954. Yet, it is that kindness that most lacks today and which the homeless - in pursuit not only of a room, but of a regard, a gesture, of some consideration - most desire.

Abbé Pierre was not duped by his own extreme popularity. Talking about the people who had put him at the head of the French favorite Top 50 personalities for years, he said that it was "often their unconscious manner of shrinking away from their own duty." Roland Barthes had already observed the same thing in the famous text of "Mythologies," entitled "The Iconography of Abbé Pierre," when he also wondered "whether the so beautiful and touching Abbé Pierre iconography is not the alibi a good part of the nation uses to allow itself, once again, to substitute - with impunity - the symbols of charity for the reality of justice."

For what Abbé Pierre wanted was more justice than charity - as when he insisted on being present in the National Assembly's galleries during the vote on the law that instituted a 20 percent social-housing requirement for the communes. He was everywhere. To protest against the destruction of agricultural surpluses, to protect the occupants of the Right to Housing Association on the rue du Dragon, to promote laws against exclusion, going to a slum occupied by Romanian families to protest against the Sarkozy law on domestic security.

A member of the Resistance, a Christian Democratic Member of Parliament, he slammed the door on his party, reproaching it for its rightward turn and support for colonial wars, denouncing "the atrocities attributed to French troops in Indochina." This perpetual insurgent said that, "it's good to do what's not supposed to be done from time to time," and "I believe the Good God has given me a talent for calculated impertinence." Not really so calculated as all that, in the end.


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