Outraged by the inaction of the authorities in the face of a serious humanitarian crisis linked to poor housing and deeply moved by the distress of so many people, he launched an appeal on 1 February 1954. This brought about a huge uprising of solidarity, and a long-awaited political response to the housing crisis.
At the end of 1953, there were officially 7 million people in France living in substandard housing. The Emmaus companions’ action wasn’t enough. Abbé Pierre thought of starting a real construction project to build emergency housing. His friend, the MP Léo Hamon, introduced and supported a bill to allocate one billion francs from the Reconstruction budget to emergency housing. However, the Parliament adjourned the amendment indefinitely.
Abbé Pierre heard of this at the same time as he learned that on the night of 3 January 1954 a baby froze to death in an old bus at the Coquelicots emergency housing site. He wrote an open letter to the Minister for Housing, who attended the baby’s funeral, which Abbé Pierre described as a “funeral of national shame”.
At the same time the Ministry of the Interior was increasing the issue of eviction orders, Abbé Pierre and his ragpickers trawled the streets of Paris giving out blankets, soup and coffee to people sleeping on the streets. He also launched the idea of the “100-franc note” campaign on Radio Luxembourg, saying “I am told that there are ten million listeners. If everyone gave one hundred francs […] without depriving them of a single gram of butter on their bread! Just think how much that would be!” In the space of four days, this amounted to over one million 100-franc notes. On 31 January, the first solidarity centre to distribute emergency supplies to the homeless was opened on rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, followed by a second one in Courbevoie.
Despite these efforts, on Monday 1 February 1954, Abbé Pierre heard about the death of a woman. She had been evicted from her home the previous night and froze to death on the street. Working with his friend, the journalist and MP Georges Verpraet, he drafted an appeal, read first on Paris-Inter and then on Radio Luxembourg by the two men at midday on the very same day.
This appeal provoked an enormous outpouring of solidarity from the people, known as the ‘uprising of kindness’. Abbé Pierre preferred to look at it as an “insurrection of intelligence, against absurdity and for justice”. Donations of money and items for the homeless came flooding in. Thanks to the popularity of the radio, Abbé Pierre all of a sudden became a symbol of the “war against poverty”. Charlie Chaplin joined others in donating 2 million francs, and stated: “I’m not giving them to you, I’m giving them back. They belong to the vagabond that I was and that I embodied.”
The Government followed suit. Three days later, it freed up 10 billion francs for the construction of 10,000 emergency homes, and approved a law forbidding evictions during the winter.
Abbé Pierre took advantage of this sudden notoriety to launch, in June 1954, Faim & Soif, a new type of review which aimed to raise public awareness about these problems in France and throughout the world, “to say what is not being said”.