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Speech made by Abbé Pierre at the International Labour Office, Geneva (1955)

After his appeal in Winter 1954, Abbé Pierre embarked on a series of trips around the world to spread his message and his work. In 1955, he travelled to the United States where he met President Eisenhower, to whom he gave an autographed copy of the English translation of his book "Abbé Pierre and the ragpickers of Emmaus". Shortly after his return, he held a conference at the International Labour Office in Geneva to talk about this journey and to share his thoughts on the state of the world of work at the time and ways to improve it. These thoughts were informed by his recent travels. Here is the transcript of his speech.

"I do not think we should exchange our mutual thanks. We waste a lot of time with reciprocal thank-yous and congratulations. But for a long time, I have been convinced of the importance of the ILO and the specialised agencies.
For a long time, I was active in federalist movements, but I soon realised that results would only be possible with realistic methods, and by that I mean functional methods. In order to work together, to collaborate and to help each other, it is not enough to have a legal structure, you have to work together on concrete tasks that meet a common need. Progress may take time, but it will be solid.

Humanity has always hoped to achieve comprehensive resource sharing, but here again progress is only possible in stages, and technical departments are needed before the government.

A month and a half ago, I visited the United States and the United Nations. During a reception presided over by Ralph Bunche and attended by nationals from all over the world, I thought I noticed that they were all sad, that they were going through some kind of crisis because they realised how ineffective they were despite all their efforts. I told them: “You have the greatest technical apparatus. You have simultaneous interpretation. And you can render into many languages at the same time what is said in just one. But this will not be worth anything until you find the common language of humanity. What is this language? It is based on a very simple formula: those who suffer the most should be served first. Beyond that, there is no common understanding and we end up with the Tower of Babel. The only possibility of a common expression, when dealing with a normal human being, is to say that the person who is hungriest should be fed first. This is what I constantly repeat and what should also be repeated in international assemblies.

This is exactly the lesson of Emmaus and I am preparing a book on its deeper meaning. Emmaus teaches us that when we decide to help those who are most unfortunate, we are not only helping them, but we are also helping all the others who are less unfortunate than them. This is the challenge we face, and if we do so, we are helping to rejuvenate the whole old world. This is what the 800 men did, for example, who agreed to work in total community, without pay, and only receiving 300 francs on Sunday as their only income. In 7 years, they have donated more than a million hours of work, making it possible to provide housing for several thousand families, and through the challenge of their example, they have helped public opinion and public authorities.

Your organisation's focus is on labour and social issues. I would like to tell you something that may seem harsh, but it is the truth. If you look closely, you will often notice that in the normally organised world of work, there is the same harshness and contempt towards those who are destitute, those who are naked and homeless, those who are vagabonds and beggars, as the well-to-do display towards the workers. One of the tasks of the working classes must be not only to protect and defend those who work, but to seek to find the human element in those who have fallen below the level of the working classes. If we succeed in making the working world understand this truth, we will have helped them to help themselves. And through them, this will lead to a fresh breath of air that will spread through the whole society.

After the great wartime turmoil of recent years, large numbers of human beings found themselves below the level of the working classes; people who no longer had a home or family; they were completely on their own. But they have amazing reserves of courage and generosity. It is enough for someone to come to them with faith and love and say: "I have not come out of pity, nor to help you, but to show you those who suffer and who suffer more than you. Will you help me to help them? "And they will answer, and they will come and do whatever they can. This is salvation from the roots.

I would like to conclude with two remarks. I am now deeply convinced that the Western World, the one we commonly call the free world, caries within it a deadly weakness. This free world seems incapable, partly because of the old age of its leaders, of offering its youth a heroic adventure. Youth are called upon to protect and preserve what are called 'Sacred Values'; but it does not involve any momentum. No one seems to be able to ask them to help the fifty percent of humanity that lives in worse conditions than animals; worse, because an animal is unaware, but man knows when he is defiled.

This is what I told President Eisenhower and others. The greatest problem of the Western World is to call on its youth to show as much heroism as they showed during the war, freely, in peace, in order to build, to heal and to teach. If we do not succeed in this, the world does not deserve to survive and cannot survive. Budgets and technical resources will be useless. I am haunted by the idea of the need for this crusade.

The second remark relates to problems more specific to Europe. In an organisation like yours, you are always more aware of the absurdity of the divisions and borders in Europe. But here again we must understand that it is madness to imagine that we can build a united Europe without the enthusiastic collaboration of the youth and the working classes. Technical projects, such as the Coal and Steel Community and others, in this respect are futile. They cannot arouse this enthusiasm. There was a chance to build Europe immediately after the war, by calling on young people to rebuild Europe materially, by establishing a 'building pact'. The youth would have responded enthusiastically, because at the end of each working day there would have been concrete results. There would have been walls and roofs to protect mothers and children, without anyone asking about their colour and race. These are the lessons that we must now tirelessly repeat.

I would like to discuss with you how we can work together in this direction. I have focused my efforts on housing and you can help by taking the initiative to create this European building pact. Another way in which you could help would be to study how to ensure the benefits of labour legislation, particularly social security, for the masses of people who are currently unprotected and whom I would like to compare to the pioneers of a "foreign legion", a world legion of peace. They can no longer adapt to a normal framework where they would benefit from social protection, because after living for 15 years as they had to live, fighting and killing, it is impossible for them to integrate into society. Unless we build the framework that would be able to sustain them, we will end up having to destroy them, even though they are capable of the greatest generosity and sacrifice. With nothing to lose, they can give themselves completely.

In order to save the world, we need some new or rather simply renewed kind of monks, that is to say, madmen, ready to go and share the condition of the most suffering to the point of excess, to compensate for the excess of general indifference, to be helped by temporary volunteers, men with the hearts of children, who are committed to assisting them in this mission. So that through them hope will seize the heart of the multitudes of desperate people, so that in the hearts of those who are desperate dignity and drive may be reborn, and that through their bravery, and through the example of the achievements of the effective services they render voluntarily, the invincible challenge of love may burst forth from below, at the root of society, to shake it to its core. The reaffirmation of the fundamental law of all social society: serve first those who suffer most. Then and only then will we find joy, peace and eternal life."


Speech made by Abbé Pierre at the International Labour Office, Geneva (1955)