Emmaus International

En 1945, la crise du logement est très sévère1945

A severe housing crisis

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In 1945, there was a severe housing crisis. For decades there had been no housing policies in place. This, combined with the devastation of the war and baby boom led to a housing shortage. Many families were unable to find decent housing.


maison-neuilly-plaisance1947 - 1948

Abbé Pierre moved into the house in Neuilly-Plaisance, which he soon used to give people somewhere to shelter and meet.

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An elected member of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP) since 1945, in October 1947 Abbé Pierre moved into a large run-down house in Neuilly-Plaisance in the Paris suburbs with his secretary, Lucie Coutaz. At first he rented the property but later purchased it using his parliamentary expenses allowance.
In winter, its doors were open to worker-priests, seminarians, young and adult activists, scouts, MRP members and so on.
In summer, it housed the international youth hostel, which gained official youth hostel status in 1949. It was set up to reconcile the young people of Europe whose fathers had fought in the Second World War.  Abbé Pierre called it “Emmaus”, in reference to a Palestinian village where a small group of people who were in despair regained hope.


thumb georges-legaySummer 1949

Abbé Pierre met Georges Legay, who became the first companion at Neuilly-Plaisance.

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In the summer of 1949, Abbé Pierre was called to the aid of a man who had lost all hope. After 20 years spent in a penal colony in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, Georges Legay was pardoned for heroic acts during a fire. Upon his return, he discovered his wife had remarried and he attempted suicide. Abbé Pierre then spontaneously offered “the opposite of charity” – he suggested Georges “help him help others” by building accommodation for homeless families. Georges Legay agreed to this.


D’autres hommes frappent à la porte de la maison Emmaüs de Neuilly-Plaisance et donnent naissance à la première communautéAutumn 1949

More people knocked on the door to the Emmaus house in Neuilly-Plaisance, giving rise to the first community.

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Like Georges, other people soon came asking for help at Neuilly-Plaisance. Thus, the first community was created “when men who had become aware of their privileged situation and social responsibilities in the face of injustice and men who no longer had any reason to live crossed paths and decided to combine forces and take action together to help each other and come to the aid of those who were suffering”.
Rather than providing them with the means to live, Abbé Pierre gave them a reason to live, paradoxically putting those who had lost everything in a position to be able to give.



thumb premiere-famille-herbergeeDecember 1949

The first family was accommodated at Neuilly-Plaisance.

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A neighbouring family was evicted from their home three days before Christmas. Unable to find them somewhere new to live, Abbé Pierre put them up at his house.


Les compagnons bâtisseurs construisent les premiers logements pour des famillesSpring 1950

The companion-builders built the first set of accommodation for families.

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In spring 1950, Abbé Pierre bought a small plot of land to build accommodation for the family.
With help from the first companions and young people living at the youth hostel, the building of this accommodation marked the beginning of the work of the Emmaus companion-builders. In the midst of a housing crisis, other homeless families soon turned to Abbé Pierre for help.


Pour vivre et continuer leur activité, les compagnons bâtisseurs se font chiffonniersDecember 1951

To survive and continue with their action, the companion-builders became rag-pickers.

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In June 1951, Abbé Pierre was not re-elected a member of parliament and lost the parliamentary expenses allowance he previously used to keep the community running. By December, the community had no funds left. Abbé Pierre went out begging at night on the streets of Paris. When the companions found out they were angry. One of them, Auguste Le Gall told them he used to survive by going through rubbish and selling what he salvaged. Abbé Pierre agreed to this idea. The companions began this new “rag-picking” activity.


Les bâtisseurs construisent des logements pour 141 familles, tandis que l’abbé Pierre tente d’agir pour le logement par la voie politique1951 - 1953

The companions built accommodation for 141 families, whilst Abbé Pierre attempted to put pressure on the authorities to deal with the housing crisis.

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The companions continued building accommodation for homeless or poorly-housed families in Neuilly-sur-Marne, Charenton-le-Pont, Pomponne, on land bought by Emmaus with loans and help from donors. Sometimes they didn’t have permission to build. Abbé Pierre justified this telling the authorities: “When the law is designed in such a way that, these workers cannot afford to put a roof over their heads, it’s not building a house without permission that’s illegal, it’s the law itself that’s illegal.”
Abbé Pierre began giving frequent speeches about the housing crisis from 1953.  
In December 1953, he asked a friend, MRP member Léo Hamon to table an amendment during the debate on the buildings budget for one billion francs to be used for emergency accommodation. However the amendment was adjourned indefinitely.


thumb appel-radio-abbe-pierreFebruary 1954

On 1 February 1954, Abbé Pierre made his famous radio appeal, which set off the "uprising of kindness". It received a huge amount of media coverage, both in France and other countries.

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Temperatures plummeted below zero at the start of 1954. Abbé Pierre and his companions trawled the streets of Paris giving soup to people sleeping rough.
When a baby froze to death in January, he wrote an open letter to Maurice Lemaire, the Minister for Housing. A woman who was evicted from her home froze to death on the street in Paris. Outraged, Abbé Pierre launched a radio appeal on 1 February 1954: “My friends, come and help me.”


thumb mobilisationImmediately after it was broadcast, donations flooded into hotel Rochester in Paris. In the evening, up to 2000 people gathered at the Pantheon to take the rough sleepers to emergency accommodation centres.

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In just a few days, 150 million francs (2.6 million euros) along with hundreds of tonnes of clothing, blankets, food and heating equipment were collected at hotel Rochester, the disused Orsay railway station, Neuilly-Plaisance and the exhibition centre. The media dubbed this unprecedented mobilisation in France and neighbouring countries the “uprising of kindness”.
The government finally recognised the need for emergency housing. The Council of Ministers immediately adopted a programme for 12,000 emergency houses.
On 30 April, Abbé Pierre inaugurated the first set of houses in Plessis-Trevise with Maurice Lemaire in attendance.