Abbé Pierre who has just died at the age of 94 was perhaps a good, and even a saintly, man. Certainly he looked the part, a white-bearded sage, habitually wearing a comforting French beret and a dramatic black cape. He started Emmaus in 1949, a movement to provide shelter for the homeless, and now an organisation in some 30 countries. That is to his credit. Hearing of the death, Jacques Chirac called him, “an immense figure, a conscience, a man who personified goodness.” And that’s quite enough to make anyone have second thoughts.
Abbé Pierre was born Henri Grouès, one of the numerous children of a well-off family in Lyons. As a teenager, he felt he had a vocation, and duly became a Capuchin monk. It is not clear quite how he left the order at some point before the war, nor how he lived, but he always had family money and a large house. Everyone who writes about him copies repetitively from each other that during the war he was a resistance hero, adding that he saved the lives of some Jews either by forging papers or by smuggling them into Switzerland. To my knowledge, nobody seems able to verify this, neither grateful Jewish survivors nor Yad Vashem, the organisation in Jerusalem that awards the title of Righteous Gentile to any Christian who saved any Jew. All that is known beyond doubt is that Abbé Pierre turned up at General de Gaulle’s headquarters in Algiers well into 1944, in other words turning his back on the real resistance to the Germans that was then really starting in France. So he might qualify for the sardonic title ascribed to thousands of his compatriots as “un résistant de la dernière heure,” or a last-minute member of the resistance.
For a while he was a Gaullist politician and member of parliament. His flair for self-dramatising was genuine, and it became a familiar feature of French life to discover this former monk and sometime priest swooping down in his black cape on poor down-and-outs, grabbing headlines for his charity. And certainly again, he made many French people feel good about themselves, regularly putting him at or near the top of polls of the greatest Frenchmen.
Then in 1996 he came out to endorse a book called “The Founding Myths of Israeli Policy.” Its author was Roger Garaudy, a veteran Stalinist, who after the Soviet collapse converted to Islam (what else?), moved to Cairo, and became a Holocaust denier. Nobody who had ever saved Jews from Nazism could conceivably have come to the support of the disgusting Garaudy. But the Abbé did. Proud to claim fifty years of friendship with Garaudy, he compared the Holocaust to what the ancient Israelites had done, and referred to Zionism as an American-based worldwide plot.
Perhaps he was in his dotage. And perhaps in his case, as in so many in a century that smoothly converted morality into a branch of public relations, the distinction between a good man and a charlatan is too fine to be perceptible.