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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 19:18 GMT
Nation to honour French activist
Abbe Pierre
Abbe Pierre devoted his life to the cause of the homeless
France is to pay tribute on Friday to the priest and homeless campaigner, Abbe Pierre, who has died at the age of 94, President Jacques Chirac has said.

As part of a day of "national homage", the funeral will be held at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and will be attended by the president and his government.

The last Frenchman to be granted such honours was the environmentalist and inventor, Jacques Cousteau, in 1997.

Abbe Pierre was one of France's most revered figures.

From Wednesday mourners will be able to pay their respects before Abbe Pierre's open coffin in the 17th century Val-de-Grace church beside the hospital where he died.

The funeral will take place at Notre Dame cathedral on Friday and the body of Abbe Pierre will be buried in a private cemetery in the Normandy village of Esteville.

Floods of tributes

Before announcing the day of national homage, President Jacques Chirac said he was deeply moved by the news of the death and called for Abbe Pierre's message to be kept alive.

A book of condolence at the Emmaus Community in Geneva, Switzerland
We have lost an immense figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness
Jacques Chirac

"Abbe Pierre showed us the way of the heart, of generosity, of the spirit of rebellion to help the most vulnerable.

"His message must stay alive in each of us and it is up to all of us to follow it through," Mr Chirac said.

French Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal praised the priest's devotion to helping others, saying he had led "an exemplary life".

The governing party UMP presidential candidate and Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that France was in mourning for the Abbe.

A homeless man, interviewed by French radio on the banks of the river Seine, said he had met Abbe Pierre through his Emmaus foundation.

"He was a bloke who devoted his life to others, all the time... Now let's hope he is canonised or something like that, because he deserved it," he said.

Winter 1954

Born Henri Groues, the Roman Catholic priest was France's leading champion of the destitute and homeless, topping a French vote on the country's favourite personalities year after year.

Radio address in Paris by Abbe Pierre in October 1954 calling for help for homeless people
Abbe Pierre galvanised the French nation in his radio address in 1954
Abbe Pierre was the codename he used - abbe is a title traditionally given to priests - during his work with the French Resistance, smuggling Jews out of occupied France during World War II.

He founded the Emmaus association in 1953, and fought for a law to stop parliament expelling tenants during the winter months after a freezing spell hit the country.

He demanded the nation act when he went on the radio in the winter of 1954, highlighting the case of a three-month-old baby who had frozen to death in inadequate housing and a woman who had died on the streets clutching an eviction order.

In the subsequent decades, he continued his tireless campaign for the destitute - and his hostels started to appear around the world in the 1970s.

Homelessness has in recent months again become a pressing issue in France - championed by a new generation of campaigners but with more than a nod to Abbe Pierre.

Last week, the French government announced plans to make housing a legally enforceable right following a "tent city" campaign along a canal in the capital, and the issue looks set to feature in forthcoming presidential elections.

Journalist Christine Ockrent, a friend of the Abbe, compared the priest to civil rights activist Martin Luther King, saying he was "a politician in his own way".

"He was a very angry man but would use his anger to stir his fellow citizens and particularly our politicians into action to try and help the poorest among us," she told the BBC.

Jewish anger

The priest also pushed the boundaries of conservative Catholicism.

His words found an echo in the hearts of every human being, regardless of origin, religion or personal commitment
Head of the Paris Mosque
Dalil Boubakaeur

He supported the ordination of women priests and said that male priests should be allowed to marry, implying in a book that he had had sex as a younger man.

There were also some career lows.

In the 1990s, he incurred the wrath of the American Jewish organisation, the Anti-Defamation League, for allegedly comparing the acts of the ancient Israelites to the Holocaust and downplaying the Nazis' crimes against the Jews.

The League decried Abbe Pierre's remarks as "insulting to both Jews and Catholics", and urged the Catholic Church to take action against him.

His defenders said he was seeking justice for the Palestinians and was not anti-Semitic.




SEE ALSO
French homeless join EU debate
25 May 05 |  Europe
French PM vows to help homeless
03 Jan 07 |  Europe

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