After WWII, France had a difficult time rebounding economically. The stagnation was due to repetitive national strikes, a war in Indo-China (Vietnam), and a protracted war in Algeria. Throughout this period, building in Paris was suppressed and a housing crisis continued to grow. As is the nature of the history of France, when things get tough, the poor take the brunt of it.
In 1954, during an especially bitterly cold winter, Abbe Pierre came to national prominence. Abbe Pierre had been a politically-minded Catholic priest that had resisted the Nazi’s during the Occupation. After the war, he dropped out of the National Assembly as he was disillusioned by the lack of progress. In 1949, he formed the humanitarian organization Emmaus that was meant to help homeless people find shelter.
Abbe Pierre gave a short speech on the radio. He started it with an evocative image:
My friends, come help… A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00 AM, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless… Each night, more than two thousand endure the cold, without food, without bread, more than one almost naked. To face this horror, emergency lodgings are not enough. (source)
The response was overwhelming in what the French called an “uprising of kindness” (insurrection de la bonté). Emmaus raised more that 500 million francs.
Abbe Pierre continued his tireless humanitarian work and was consistently one of the most popular man in France well into his 90s.
He died in 2007.