For volunteer numbers the charity Secours Populaire Français is France’s No1 for helping those in need. Its president, Julien Lauprêtre, has headed it since 1958, after being inspired to help others by his experiences in the Résistance. Known as ‘the secular Abbé Pierre’, he tells Oliver Rowland he sees a new spirit of resistance in France, linked to solidarity for those in difficulty
WITH a budget of €314million the Secours Populaire Français is the third largest charity helping those in need in France, after the Croix Rouge and Secours Catholique, but it is the biggest in terms of the number of volunteers – about 80,000 all over France.
It marked its 70th anniversary last month in Marseille with a conference for delegates from other hardship organisations from more than 60 countries. The same month it showed its modern-day commitment by taking a lead after the fatal floods on the Riviera, being one of the main organisations giving practical help.
Through its network of 1,256 local branches, it is involved in helping with clothing, food, access to housing and medical care as well as rights and legal support.
It also helps people find work and social links and cultural activities, and organises holidays for people from low-income families that cannot afford to go away.
This includes the Journées des Oubliés des Vacances [days for those who have been forgotten for holidays] – special children’s events with fun activities, which this August included one big combined version for 70,000 children on the Champ de Mars beside the Eiffel Tower.
Julien Lauprêtre, 89, has led the charity since 1958 and steered it away from its French Communist Party links to become apolitical and a leading source of charity aid.
It must be unique for someone to have headed a major French charity for so long?
That’s true, and that’s why a lot of French people refer to me as the secular Abbé Pierre, which doesn’t bother me at all. I worked closely with Abbé Pierre up until his last days.
In fact, though, we don’t specify in our statutes that we’re secular, because sometimes in France that can give the impression that you’re opposed to religion and the clergy. We have men and women of all religions involved.
You are the largest French charity in terms of volunteers?
We’ve grown a great deal and one reason is that we are totally independent and don’t answer to anyone. That’s a precious thing to us, our driving force, and we fight to maintain it.
Secondly we’re not a foundation with a few people running it from Paris but a real association, with more than a million donors and 80,000 volunteers, organised by nearly 700 committees all over France. We are very decentralised and close to what’s happening on the ground.
There was a recent survey that claimed a slight drop in poverty in France. It’s not true. I don’t know where they got those statistics but that reminds me of the surveys they hold before an election and which say the opposite to what turns out to be true.
Last year we helped 2,800,000 people and this year it’s clear that that will have risen again. That’s the figure for people who came to ask our help. It included 160,000 young people. But how many don’t dare to ask?
Now we have a system of buses that go to meet young people on campuses – called Solidaribus – we go to them.
It seems the charity’s work is still needed very much – perhaps that’s disappointing, after all this time?
I was elected to the organising committee in 1955, so it’s been a little while. Back then I was familiar with the issue of homeless people, who were known as the syndicat de la cloche [literally, union of the bell, from the resemblance between cloche – bell – and clochard – tramp]. They were people that had decided to become tramps and live differently.
But now there are floods of people who are homeless.
When you see that, or the number of single-parent families that come to ask for help, or – which perhaps upsets me the most – the number of retired people who have worked all their lives and come to ask Secours Populaire for something to eat.
The need for solidarity has become a major problem in our society; it’s got to be developed I’m modest enough to know that we can’t solve everything, but sometimes journalists say to us, ‘what you do is just a drop in the ocean’. Perhaps they see it like that, but for the people we help it’s an ocean of happiness.
When you see, for example, the children who went to our Journée des Oubliés – well, it’s true it’s not going to solve everything, but for them it gives them a sense of hope, to have holidays next year, to eat better...
Now we see in France that there are more and more little associations in districts, with people who get together out of solidarity.
When there’s some kind of disaster – unfortunately there are a lot of them, with things like floods – we see such an outpouring of solidarity; people who didn’t used to speak to each other, in the same village, who put themselves forward to help. It’s a growing phenomenon.
Some say the government should do more to help, for example through social security, rather than it being left to charities
People struggle with their living conditions – as I said, if pensioners are coming to ask for something to eat, it’s because their pension isn’t sufficient.
At the Secours Populaire we are the defenders of the poor, not their prosecutors. We meet ministers and heads of state and say ‘last year one child in three didn’t get a holiday – here’s what we’re doing about it; what about you?’ We try to give pointers to the state. We’re not a union, nor a political organisation, but we ask questions and ask people to face up to their responsibilities.
What inspired you to dedicate yourself to this work?
Firstly the example of my father, who was a union activist for railway workers.
He was devoted to it and never looked to serve his own interests or gain glory. A really admirable man.
But what was decisive in my choice to keep doing useful things was when I was arrested when I was 17.
I had created a Resistance group with two school friends, and we joined the movement of young clandestine communists. We were heavily involved in Resistance activities. But unfortunately in 1943 we were arrested.
The men I found myself in prison with were Affiche Rouge [red poster] people, from the Main d’Oeuvre d’Immigrés; a union representing foreign workers], who had enrolled in the francs-tireurs [a resistance movement].
[The Affiche Rouge was a Nazi progaganda poster with photos of 10 foreign dissidents, described as an ‘army of crime’].
I ended up spending eight days in prison with them because our group leader had hidden an Affiche Rouge man at home. When they came to arrest this man, they tortured him and he confessed who he had been working with. [The most famous Affiche Rouge fighter] Missak Manouchian, said to me: ‘Young man, you’re going to make it out, I’m going to be shot. You’ve got to keep going.’
That really made me what I am; I still think about it every day.
It is admirable that at your age you continue your efforts to help others
I’ll do it until my last breath; there’s so much injustice. Our time on Earth is short, we might as well make it useful.
And I feel what I do is useful; I have proof of that every day.
One thing you are known for is helping people who don’t get away on holiday
Yes, firstly we try to help the maximum number of families go away for a real holiday for a week or two. But once you get to August 15, a child who’s not been away won’t get the chance so for the last 30 years we’ve been organising the Journées des Oubliés.
At first the teachers and children’s charities all said: ‘What’s the point of one day? They need real holidays’. My reaction was ‘I’m ready if you give me the money’.
But the teachers changed their attitudes when they saw the effect on the kids when they went back to school in September – if you asked what they’d done during the holidays and they’d been to the Journée des Oubliées, it was as if they’d had three weeks in Saint-Tropez. Teachers say it even boosts their schoolwork because they feel like the others – they’ve been away and seen something new.
Was it a happy occasion this year?
It was really wonderful, there were 70,000 kids, with a treasure hunt in the morning and children’s activities like face painting workshops and sessions for sharing experiences; meeting children who’d come from around the world and had been staying in 17 Copain du Monde holiday centres [buddy of the world – a children’s movement which is part of the Secours Populaire].
It seems you are looking for families who can host children for holidays?
We’ve got a whole network. We contact families and say ‘you’re lucky enough to be able to go away on holiday; could you maybe squeeze in a child, or indeed a family?’
We’re trying to expand that, because as I say, there’s a growing feeling of solidarity.
The big contradiction in France is a rise in racism, anti-semitism, violence: but at the same time there’s what I call a new Resistance – people who want to do something for solidarity.
Things like bakeries where people pay for two baguettes so as to offer one to someone in need; or restaurants who decide ‘OK, next Sunday I’ll set aside three tables for the Secours Populaire, for people who never go to the restaurant’.
There are concrete examples like that, that show that feelings of solidarity are deep-rooted; but at the same time we have to encourage it, because there’s also this poison of xenophobia and racism that’s rising, linked to the arrival of migrants. They say: ‘We’ve enough poor people in France, we mustn’t do anything for migrants’.
It’s not fair.
We need to find people to help, and people do answer the call. They come forward and say ‘I can take in a migrant at my home’, or ‘I’m going for an outing; I can take someone with me’. There are teachers who say ‘we can help them learn French’. There’s a counter-current to that other one that’s no good.
How can Connexion readers help?
For a start by donating to Secours Populaire. As they say, money is the ‘sinews of war’. Teachers, for example, can give a bit of time to help people who are illiterate. Someone who likes cooking could help migrants learn how to cook the food that we donate.
You could organise a jumble sale...
There are all kinds of ways of helping others. We’ve made a leaflet with 100 ideas you can do to help them cope; we’re generalists of solidarity.
On the migrant crisis, one important thing is we have teamed up with 16 other European-Mediterranean charities to organise initiatives to help people in the countries they’re coming from, to help them stay.
In December you organise the Pères Noëls Verts (Green Father Christmases)?
The idea behind that is that green is the colour of hope. The Green Father Christmas goes to places where the red one doesn’t go.
The idea is to offer you a better Christmas than you’d been expecting – a good meal, a theatre trip, something like that. This year we have an agreement with a theatre to do an evening for people who never go to the theatre.
We develop a lot of partnerships.
For example, Kronenbourg is going to donate money from beer sales to the Green Father Chistmases.
Supermarkets are going to have shelves of new free toys for poor kids.
We insist they should be new. The kid from a poor family is already dealing with life’s hardships; we’re not going to give them a broken toy.
If people want to know what’s happening, should they contact the local branch?
Yes, in every department there are things you can do and they’ll be welcomed.
We’re doing well, with 80,000 volunteers, but if we had 100,000 it would be even better!
Children delighted to see rapper and Eiffel Tower
THIS SUMMER the Secours Populaire organised a giant Journée des Oubliés des Vacances at the Champ de Mars in Paris. Connexion spoke to volunteer Mauricette Kerambrin, 55, and Jeremy, seven, who travelled with her from Finistère.
Mauricette said she has been a volunteer for nine years. “I benefited from help from Secours Populaire as I had problems and so I wanted to help others who were in the same situation. I man the telephone at our branch in Brest twice a week; there are more than 30 of us there.
“At the Journée des Oubliés there was a volunteer for every five children. It went really well, everyone was very pleased and a lot of children came who had never seen Paris: they were happy when they saw the Eiffel Tower.”
She said one highlight was a choreographed dance involving all the children at once. “It was amazing: a record for the most people taking part in a dance, we beat the one that had been held by Korea.”
Jeremy said of the day out in the capital: “I went to Paris in a coach, with Mauricette. It was my first time.
“It was good. It was bigger than I expected."
He said he especially liked seeing French rapper Black M – and the Eiffel Tower. He also took part in the dance, took photos, and enjoyed walking in the park.
Mauricette said: “Jeremy really liked this singer, and when he saw him he was fascinated and didn’t move from the spot.”
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