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Colin Randall wrote here on France, things Anglo-French and more......but has moved

January 22, 2007

Abbé Pierre: uncommonly great, uncommonly honest

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You had your Queen Mother, we had Abbé Pierre.
A remarkable priest and what he meant to France were summed up in those nine words. They came in response to my expression of mild surprise
that France 2 had devoted almost the whole of its lunchtime news to his death, aged 94.


Photograph: Abbé Pierre Foundation


There was a significant difference between the Queen Mother and Abbé Pierre. Whereas she was known universally, his was hardly a household name outside France.

At home, though, this friend to the poor, indefatigable battler for the under-privileged was a true saint in the minds of people who shared his concerns and liked his rebellious spirit, but could not hope to match his commitment.

That is why we were treated to reams of old footage with snapshot glimpses of a great man's life, reverential tributes from a succession of studio guests and clips of today's words of praise from everyone who matters or hopes to matter in France.

Chirac, of course; he is actually very impressive in such circumstances, and spoke of France losing "an immense figure, a conscience, and incarnation of good". Then Ségo, Sarko and the lesser presidential candidates.

As someone from France 2 put it, Abbé Pierre's appeal transcended real and supposed barriers; he was adored and admired by young and old, men and women, rich and poor, Left and Right.

In today's small hours, he knew he was dying, beaten by bronchitis, but had no fear of death, we discovered from one of the speakers. A niece, and an executive of the worldwide Emmaus charity network that he created, sat with him and prayed until he breathed his last at 5.25am.

By midday, they were talking of burying him among the greats at the Panthéon, of giving his name to the law on rights for the homeless about to go before the French parliament.

In fact, he had already expressed a clear desire to be laid to rest among colleagues from his 1954 campaign for the poor and unsheltered, during a ferociously cold winter. That will take his bones to Esteville in Normandy, where he lived for most of the 1990s at an Emmaus retirement home.

As for laws in his name, I doubt if he could have cared less. His foundation was not prepared to go beyond giving the legislation a oui mais, seeing it only as a useful start.

But the thing that struck me most about Abbé Pierre during the last two years of his life was that he remained one of his country's most popular citizens even though - perhaps because - he was big enough to own up to human weakness.

Towards the end of 2005, he admitted in a book that he had more than once broken his vow of chastity as a Roman Catholic priest.

Looking at the old television and newsreel film of a good-looking young man - if priests can be swashbuckling, he was - it was not hard to see that temptation would have crossed his path.

There had, he said, been "passing relations" with women, though he had not felt able to commit himself to anything more lasting: "I was very young when I dedicated my life to God and other people.

"I made my vow of chastity, but that did nothing to remove the strength of desire, to which I have succumbed in passing fashion......I could not allow sexual desire to take root. I therefore have known such desire, and on rare occasions satisfied it, but in reality this satisfaction has been a real source of dissatisfaction because I felt I was not being true.

"To be properly satisfying, sexual desire had to express itself in a loving, tender and trusting relationship. That was not open to me because of my chosen life."

I do not know how this went down in the Vatican.

But to their credit, it seems to have mattered not a jot to the French. Only a few months after making these comments, he was voted the third greatest Frenchman of all time, behind only de Gaulle and Pasteur.

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28 Comments:

At January 22, 2007 3:34 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

I like your summing up Colin:

UK = Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Spoilt aristocratic brat. Retired to a massive palace.

France = Abbé Pierre
Great humanitarian of lowly birth.
Retired to an old peoples home for the poor.

What an enormous divide between these two nations

 
At January 22, 2007 3:42 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

There were a number of significant differences between the Queen Mother and Abbé Pierre, the main one being: What did she ever do for other people that came even remotely close to his work? She was nothing more than a walking photo-op and surrogate granny to Royal Family groupies. No one could ever seriously call her "an immense figure, a conscience, and incarnation of good." Without the public eye, she would have been an utter nonentity. Abbé Pierre had no need of the cameras and headlines; the manufactured reality that gave the Queen Mother life.

 
At January 22, 2007 4:32 PM, Anonymous Smiley said...

If the French can forgive Zizou for his headbutt, it's pretty much a given that they would forgive a priest for a bit of hanky panky.

 
At January 22, 2007 7:48 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

You touch on something important there smiley. The French distinguish between forgiveness and approval. You are forgiven for being human, making mistakes, the flesh is weak. They even prefer people who are human beings rather than machines.

The English cannot forgive people because they fear that they will just start sinning again ie forgiveness is approval. In fact all they do is alienate people because we are all imperfect and you are just judging people by class values. Some sins are OK, some are not. So that's why you have such a stilted society in England. On the one hand people pretending to be perfect, but in fact hypocritical. The other side slobs who feel rejected.

The only thing that the two secteurs of English society have in common is that 'they don't feel good in their skin'. Alcohol to the rescue.

 
At January 22, 2007 8:10 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

To wit, the house of Windsor -- about as dysfunctional a family as you'd find outside a low-end "reality" TV show. They can get away with whatever they please because of who they are. This is hypocrisy made flesh and pretty much the whole nation is in collusion, except for the small minority that refuses to tug its collective forelock.
An English Abbé Pierre, unless he got himself on the chat-show circuit and was either witty, confrontational or confessional, would find his passing unmarked and unmourned.

 
At January 23, 2007 10:34 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

Abbe Pierre's death was not remarked upon at my kids' schools. In fact, neither child (RA 16, eldest son 10) had heard of him!

 
At January 23, 2007 10:35 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

Bill, Mother Theresa's death was noted and remarked. Don't be so cynical.

 
At January 23, 2007 2:42 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Cynical? I don't think so but perhaps you're right. Mother Theresa, though, was a colourful person working in a colourful environment that lent itself to wonderful media imagery. Had she been an English nun working among the English poor, I suspect the reaction to her death might have been a little more understated. And the lady herself was very media savvy; in that respect there was, perhaps (if you'll forgive even more cynicism), a touch of Princess Di about her.
For a rather different viewpoint of Mother Theresa, written in 2003 by Christopher Hitchens, the internationally renowned English journalist, take a look at:
www.slate.com/id/2090083/ Hitchens certainly didn't see her as a female Abbé Pierre.

 
At January 23, 2007 4:36 PM, Anonymous Smiley said...

Abbé Pierre got an obituary in the Telegraph today, but as his passing went unnoticed elsewhere I couldn't help wondering if the Telly is keeping an eye on Colin's blog...

 
At January 23, 2007 4:55 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

Thank you Bill, a most interesting article. I didn't know all that stuff about Mother Theresa. What a deception.

 
At January 23, 2007 5:08 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Hitchens has written quite a bit about her and I think had something of an axe to grind. But his research seems strong and there was clearly far more (or should that be less?) to her than met the eye.

 
At January 24, 2007 3:35 AM, Blogger Robert Marchenoir said...

"France = Abbé Pierre
Great humanitarian of lowly birth."

Nice try, but wrong. Abbé Pierre's father was a well-to-do industrialist.

 
At January 24, 2007 3:19 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

All the more credit, then, to Abbé Pierre. His well-to-do father, the director of a Lyon silk factory, was one of the good guys, though. It was his charity work for the poor that inspired his son.

 
At January 24, 2007 10:20 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

Robert you must be wary. Sometimes I slip in a little trap for the pretentious amongst us. Abbé Pierre may have come from a well off industrial family, but nevertheless he was a commoner and hence of lowly birth. To be a British aristocrat your money and your achievements are of little importance. What is determinant is whether Mummy and Daddy were aristocrats. I think the best analogy for explaining the system is the breeding of pedigree dogs.

That doesn’t mean to say that the rules are entirely respected. As you would expect, being British, things have been adulterated. Hence the commoner and talented musician Paul McCartney deems it necessary to be seen around town with that ridiculous medieval title ‘Sir’. Tony Blair, with his talent for appealing to the baser instincts of his fellow citizens has set up a shop in Downing street to sell peerages. Whether he charges VAT or not we don’t know. But it seems that he shreds his archives shortly after booking a sale.

 
At January 24, 2007 10:43 PM, Blogger anonyhamster said...

And your point is...?

 
At January 25, 2007 1:48 PM, Anonymous SH said...

I do not know who had the odd idea of comparing Abbé Pierre with the Queen Mother. It's a bit like comparing St Francis of Assissi with the Mona Lisa.

Richard of Orléans is once again "challenging traditional thinking", or as most people would call it, getting his facts wrong. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was a commoner, as was the Princess of Wales, in that neither was of royal birth. This "aristocrat" thing is irrelevant.

Perhaps a better comparison between the UK and France would be to say:
France = François Mitterand, devious, unprincipled wartime collaborator who became devious, unprincipled, vainglorious, spendthrift president. We don't all live in La-La-Land, though we can all admire Abbé Pierre, who probably died in a "home for the poor" because he had taken a vow of poverty.

 
At January 25, 2007 4:08 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was certainly not of lowly birth. Her father, Claude George Bowes-Lyon, was Lord Glamis, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, whose massive holdings in Scotland and England included Glamis Castle.
Not exactly the girl next door.

 
At January 25, 2007 6:57 PM, Blogger Robert Marchenoir said...

Haha, Roo, you are caught red-handed: you will never graciously admit to a mistake, will you?

Mind you, if you really put deliberately that falsehood about abbé Pierre in your comment, as you claim you have, it would not shine a very flattering light upon you.

Il would just show that you are not above twisting facts to support an opinion.

The funny thing is you do not even realize it. Talk about pretentiousness. If I were you, I would stick with the former hypothesis.

 
At January 25, 2007 6:59 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

So SH who got his facts wrong then? You should read up on dog breeding before you venture forth. A copy of Debré’s would be useful too. You don’t have to be a ‘royal’ to be aristocratic. I don’t recall Diana Spencer being much of a commoner either.

The comparison incidentally was made by the erstwhile journalist of the upper-class rag to the aristos and fellow travellers.

I find it strange how the Brits are always looking to duck the issues. England is a monarchy. You all stand up and sing “God save the rich aristocratic woman who spends all her life living in gilded palaces at our expense because she was the daughter of a king” You are subjects we are citizens. These are simple facts of life

Of course I do admit some commoners get into the English aristocracy. Either through Tony’s little sweet shop selling humbug or as a result of getting into the right bed à la Kate Middleton (of Toronto Star fame). The sad thing is that instead of introducing a breath of fresh air they just ape the incumbents.

Incidentally the degree to which Mitterrand collaborated with Vichy is uncertain. Yes he did work for them for a short time in a junior post and there is a photo of him with Pétain but there is no proof of him doing anything nasty. He was also a prisoner of war in Germany. He assisted fellow returning prisoners. Additionally he was a reasonably early member of the resistance. He had his good points, which one can’t say of TB with his ‘free trade’ in Lordships and alleged destruction of evidence.

 
At January 25, 2007 6:59 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At January 25, 2007 8:22 PM, Anonymous SH said...

I wouldn't mind a copy of Michel Debré, minister under de Gaulle; I certainly would not want a copy of Régis Debré, a crony of Mitterand. But I suspect you mean Debrett's, Richard, who publish the English equivalent of the Almanach de Gotha.

 
At January 25, 2007 9:04 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

Yea right SH. It's the one that monitors the 7000 odd families with hereditary titles and which compose the British aristocracy, give or take some fellow travellers, hangers on, soaks, snobs, fakes etc.

 
At January 25, 2007 9:53 PM, Blogger anonyhamster said...

So what's with this "We are citizens", Richard (not really) of Orleans? You yourself have never taken French citizenship, you said. So does this make you one of the "fellow-travellers, hangers on, soaks, snobs, fakes, etc" of Great Britain? Or just a confused mess?

 
At January 25, 2007 10:14 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

I haven't taken French citizenship and the reason is that I would feel a fake Frenchman. Well partly. The other reason is that in this fantastic country, even if you are a foreigner you are treated just like a citizen. So I really feel I am an honorary citizen, something for which I a m most grateful.

And as for being a subject of tin lizzie, and paying for the gilded palaces, not on your nellie.

I am sure, if I was a recent immigrant and was benefiting from all the wonderful services without having first worked hard and paid my taxes. Then, in that instance, I would surely feel a hanger on, a soak, a sponger, maybe even a beggar. Happily I am not in that situation. Some are.

 
At January 25, 2007 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the U.K. you are either royalty or a commoner. Dukes, baronets etc. are just as much commoners as the factory hand. This is best thought of as separate distinction from that between peasant and aristocrat.
All of which has nothing to do with the passing of someone who seems to have been a rare thing - a good man.

 
At January 25, 2007 11:12 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Tell that to the factory hand...

 
At January 29, 2007 11:50 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

"in this fantastic country, even if you are a foreigner you are treated just like a citizen"

I do believe citizens can vote. Foreigners can't.

Big distinction. You work, pay your taxes, feed the Secu, but your views don't count. Unlike the layabout Frog living it up on benefits and Secu fraud.

 
At January 29, 2007 12:57 PM, Blogger richard of orléans said...

I think that's fair enough. If I bother to fill in the paperwork I become a French citizen and I get the vote. If I stay British, I have no vote. I certainly don't want the British to have the vote in France.

But regardless of citizenship, if I choose, I can be a layabout and get all the benefits of a Frenchman. Foreigner or not. And most of the French are not layabouts. When they work they work, they don't spend all day at the coffee machine like the Brits.

 

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