Abbé Pierre headed his CV with this description in 1967. It is key to understanding how he led his life as it sums up the ultimate aim of his many global struggles, many of which earned him international renown and would be worth revisiting today.
World federalist activist
Even from 1947, Abbé Pierre championed the idea of there being a global authority, which would preside over nation-states. He became actively involved in a number of branches of world federalism. For four years, he chaired the executive committee of the Universal Movement for a World Confederation until 1952.
With peace restored, he joined forces with those who were seeking a way of avoiding a third world war by setting up a supranational government, which would preside over nation-states: world federalism.
Along with 80 members of parliament he set up a French federalist parliamentary group on 19 June 1947.
Two months later, he attended the founding congress in Montreux in Switzerland of the Universal Movement for a World Confederation. It was chaired by John Boyd Orr, who received the Nobel prize in 1949. He was elected vice-chair, then chair of the executive committee.
This position led him to travel the world to promote the ideas of federalism. That is also how he met some of the world’s leading figures: Albert Einstein (member of the World Federalist Movement) in the United States in 1948, Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, Indian leaders and disciples of Gandhi, and many others.
After four enthralling years, in 1952 Abbé Pierre decided to pass on the baton to devote himself entirely to Emmaus.
More than 50 years actively supporting world and European federalism
Aside from his involvement with the Universal Movement for a World Confederation, Abbé Pierre went on to found, lead or become a member of many other global and European federalist organsiations.
In 1950 in Geneva, he took part in the first meeting of the Global Council of the Peoples' Constituent Assembly.
Abbé Pierre’s loyalty to world federalism continued throughout his life. In 1997 he was still a supporter and member of the honorary committee of the French branch of the World Federalist movement. On 27 November 1999, speaking to conference, 'Transforming unbridled globalisation into institutional globalisation’ he renewed his original commitment to world federalism.
Commitment to pacifism
Against war and violence, for recognition of conscientious objection status and against nuclear armament.
He met Habib Bourguiba, a clandestine activist for Tunisian independence in 1948 in Paris. He discussed how war could be avoided in the pursuit of independence, which was finally reached in 1956.
In December 1948, he publicly supported Garry Davis, the first Citizen of the World, at the General Assembly of the United Nations in Paris. Shortly afterwards, Member of Parliament, Abbé Pierre declared himself a Citizen of the World.
He supported, or was a member of, a great many pacifist movements including Non-Violent Civic Action, World Peace Brigade for Non-Violent Action, Committee for the Defence of Freedom and the Law, International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Pacifist Union of France (an affiliate of War Resisters’ International).
Several points illustrate Abbé Pierre's international recognition in this domain:
- Between March and May 1960, he visited the French Sub-Saharan African colonies that were in the midst of their struggles for independence (Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal). There he met with defenders of the status quo as well as pro-independence activists, some of whom were his friends. He was an official guest at Togo’s independence celebrations on 27 April.
- In April 1962, the organisation Uhuru – Africa Freedom Action based in Dar es Salaam called on him to support the struggle for freedom and democracy in Central Africa, particularly in order to protect the freedom of movement of the future president of the Republic of Tanganyika.
- In June 1962, his friends and leaders of India invited him to the convention against nuclear armament organised by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, held in Delhi. He had a private meeting with Rada Krishnan, President of the Indian Union, as well as his predecessor and successor.
- In 1963, the Israeli branch of War Resisters' International put forward Abbé Pierre as a candidate for the organisation’s executive committee.
- In 1967, after a noteworthy speech at the Stockholm conference on Vietnam, he was asked to sit on the monitoring committee, although he declined due to a lack of time.
- In 1971, the Indo-Pakistani conflict heightened the threat of a third world war and brought several million refugees to India. Abbé Pierre was one of three official guests from France at an international conference held in New Delhi by the Indian government. On his return, he appealed to the 38,000 mayors of France to set up twinning agreements between French towns and cities with Bengali refugee camps in India.
- In 1991, during the Gulf War, Abbé Pierre twice appealed for peace and expressed his opposition to war in letters addressed to Presidents George Bush and Saddam Hussein.
- In 1995, he visited the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, accompanied by Bernard Kouchner, who was at that time a member of the European Parliament. He then travelled to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, whilst bombs rained on the city, which for three years had been under siege by Serb forces. He urged the nations of the world to take emergency action to put an end to the massacres.
Involvement in the United Nations
In December 1947, as Vice-Chair of the executive committee of the Universal Movement for a World Confederation, Abbé Pierre took part in Geneva in the second session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There he met members of the drafting committee, Eleanor Roosevelt and Alexander E. Bogomolov, USSR ambassador.
In May 1965, he gave a remarkable speech at a conference, ‘Adapting the United Nations to today’s world’ held in Nice and organised by the Association for the Development of International Law, in the presence of the UN Under-Secretary-General.
On 14 September 1999, Abbé Pierre was invited by UNESCO to speak at the launch ceremony of the International Year of Culture and Peace.
Countless political struggles in France and around the world...
...opposing dictatorships and campaigning for democracy
September 1973: in the days following the military coup led by General Pinochet in Chile, two community leaders from Las Urracas–Emaús in Temuco were arrested. Emmaus International mobilised its members in many different countries to save their lives.
1990: friends and fellow members of Emmaus in Benin, Albert Tévoédjrè and the Archbishop of Cotonou, Isidore De Souza were heavily involved in the country’s return to democracy after almost 17 years of dictatorship. They called on Emmaus International to offer practical support for civil society activists helping society’s poorest members. Abbé Pierre endorsed the campaign launched by Emmaus International and several other NGOs ‘for democratic reform in Benin’.
...against the dictatorship of money
September 1988: Abbé Pierre and the 254 delegates who attended the sixth world assembly of Emmaus International in Verona, Italy addressed a letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had convened in Berlin.
…against hunger in the world
On 1 July 1960, the United Nations launched the World Freedom from Hunger Campaign. A friend of three successive presidents of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Abbé Pierre was one of the public figures who launched the campaign in France.
On 14 March 1963, Abbé Pierre was one of the 29 world-renowned figures invited to Rome to the special meeting of the FAO on the right to freedom from hunger. He also signed the manifesto declaring the right to freedom from hunger.
…for the right to decent housing
1990: Abbé Pierre championed the cause of a group of migrant families who had been evicted and were living in camp at la Réunion square in Paris. He supported the action of Right to housing – an organisation which requisitioned empty buildings to accommodate homeless people. Abbé Pierre supported their action all throughout his life.
July 1992: nominated Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour, Abbé Pierre refused to accept and wear the decoration in protest against the lack of an effective housing policy for disadvantaged members of society. This refusal led to the creation of the High Committee for Housing for the Disadvantaged, under the Prime Minister’s responsibility.
1995: once again, he challenged French elected representatives about the right to housing.
On 24 January 2006, he gave a stirring speech at the French National Assembly to members of parliament who were discussing a bill to make a national commitment to housing.
…for the right to asylum: welcoming undocumented persons
May 1991: Abbé Pierre fasted for two days with asylum seekers on hunger strike at St Joseph’s church in Paris.
1996: Abbé Pierre supported undocumented persons who were occupying the churches of St Ambroise and St Bernard in Paris.
December 1958 – January 1959: when he first travelled to India, Abbé Pierre was invited to speak at the national congress of Catholic universities in Bombay. Whilst he was there he met the country’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who delivered a message of support for Emmaus’s international volunteering.
In January 1959, when stopping off in Beirut, Abbé Pierre gave another conference. The minister of the interior and social affaires was won over and awarded him the Lebanese First Class Order of Merit.
July – August 1959: on his first trip to Latin America, Abbé Pierre was received by some of the most illustrious political and religious figures. The president of Ecuador gave him rank of officer in the National Order of Merit.
The foreign honorary prizes and distinctions awarded to Abbé Pierre include the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal in 1975, which was awarded to him by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe-Stiftung de Bâle; the International Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Fraternity Among Peoples in 1991; the Alfonso Comín International Award in 1995 for his tireless struggle on behalf of the marginalised; the ‘Giorgio La Pira’ Peace and Solidarity Award in 1996.
He was awarded most of these distinctions for his peacekeeping efforts and for his struggles to combat poverty.
Agitator within the Catholic Church
Abbé Pierre forged links of friendship with several members of the Second Vatican Council, firstly with Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, papal nuncio in Paris at the start of the 1950s and future Pope Jean XXIII.
Towards the end of the 1950s, he forged lasting friendships beyond the realms of the Catholic Church and Christianity, which was unusual at the time:
- with Pastor André Trocmé, who was also involved in campaigning for world federalism, and with his wife Magda, of the European bureau of the International Movement for Reconciliation, a French branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation
- and with Vinoba Bhave, his encounter with whom was one of the major events of his spiritual life.