A Public Outcry, Without Anger

Painting above: by Henri, child from the Noisy-le-Grand camp, 1966, France  – AR0100256022 © ATD Quart Monde

Article written by Béatrice Noyer, member of the ATD Fourth World Volunteer Corps at the Joseph Wresinski Archives and Research Centre.

At this time of global health crisis, a great many people and families everywhere are talking about their difficulties finding food, but also about the lack of financial resources.

We are reminded of May 1968, a period during which France was paralysed by general strikes. At that time, ATD Fourth World had to reinvent its approach to meet the expectations of the most destitute families.

Francine de la Gorce, one of the first members of the Volunteer Corps to join Joseph Wresinski and the families of the Noisy-le-Grand camp for homeless people, describes this period of May 1968 in several of her books. At that time, she was living with her family in Les Franc-Moisins, a shanty town in Saint-Denis, near Paris:

  • “At the beginning of the student uprisings, the dormant worker within Father Joseph remains cautious and suspicious of the “privileged” people who cause trouble without realising that others will pay the consequences. In the emergency housing estates and shanty towns, families no longer receive family allowances1 because the general strike is blocking postal orders. Deprived of wages, workers who are often unauthorized and never unionized receive no help, and even the ultimate means of survival when everything is lacking – sorting through garbage – has become impossible, as household waste is no longer collected.”

Call for solidarity, appeal for donations

  • “People have nothing left and members of the volunteer corps go out on the streets asking for donations with a leaflet that starts as follows: These times should not be times of extreme poverty but of justice and brotherhood. All those who were children in 1936 remember this period of strike as a period of misfortune, because they were hungry. Like them, their children in turn live in the same fear of the strike and already, they are hungry…”
  • A letter to the friends of the Movement also refers to 1936: “In the shanty towns and emergency housing estates, what seemed to me most painful during those days was the lack of hope of the families and the almost terror that carved the faces of the children and adults. Suddenly it seemed that brotherhood had retreated. It seemed that all life had withdrawn from the veins, arteries, and hearts of these men; they relived from the first day the nightmare of ‘36 when, as children, they had seen on their parents’ faces the apprehension of anguish and hunger.”
  • “Our teams try to organise mutual assistance wherever they are established. Friends help us by going out on the streets to ask for donations; others put us in touch with farmers who are willing to offer truckloads of food.”
  • “On May 28th, Father Joseph himself led the meeting to prepare the distribution of aid at Noisy, facing about ninety adults and fifty young people. It took all his authority to calm the quarrels that usually arise when it comes to money to be distributed or trust to be granted. The families would like Father Joseph to stand in the committee as a guarantee, but he refused, adding forcefully: It will be now or never. You will never take your responsibilities if you do not take them now! Now is your chance to get out of dependency, to create your own cooperatives! Finally, an agreement is reached between the inhabitants.”

The registers of grievances

  • “Once survival was assured, Father Joseph asked all the teams to go door to door and suggested that the families express their requests in notebooks, which he immediately compared to the registers of grievances written in the French countryside in preparation of the Estates General of 1789. Everyone got involved; those who knew how to write made themselves available to the others. The messages touched on the various areas of their lives: housing, work, children’s education, but also, and above all, shame and social rejection.”
  • “Registers of grievances in which people can express all the injustices they denounce, as well as the proposals they make to address them. The result is a genuine declaration of human rights, associated with an embryonic programme of political and social action; an immense cry rising from all the sub-proletarian cities of France, a hateless cry, extraordinarily unanimous. What they demand first and foremost, even before decent living conditions, is the recognition of their dignity, the right to raise their children, to get an education, to work…”
  • “At a time when the whole country was speaking out on the streets, it was essential that the most destitute people did not remain trapped in silence, trembling with fear, victims of an even greater hardship due to the paralysis of all active life. The registers laid the foundations for the first brief submitted by the Movement to the President of the Republic.2 The thirst for expression, dialogue, and encounters revealed on this occasion could not remain without consequences.”

Early stages of the Fourth World People’s University

  • “In 1968, the Manifesto A People Speaks enabled the families of the Fourth World to participate actively in the growing awareness and questioning of our society that was emerging in all sorts of circles, without being held hostage by those who wanted to denounce its injustices. But that was not enough for us: it was now necessary that the concordance of the lived experiences, the aspirations revealed by all the emergency housing estates or shanty towns that had raised claims on that occasion, should become a true, lasting and deepening dialogue, bringing together and revealing a people.”
  • It is in the midst of this painful and unacceptable experience of hunger that the urgent need to organise the resistance of the poorest people by arming them with words and knowledge to “force the world to change” arose.

More on the history of ATD Fourth World.

Quotes in this article are from:
Francine de la Gorce, La Gaffe de Dieu, editions Quart Monde 1981
Francine de la Gorce, Famille Terre de Liberté, editions Quart Monde 1986
Francine de la Gorce, Un peuple se lève, editions Quart Monde 1995

  1. These are given by the French government to families with at least two dependent members under 20. The amount depends on family income, dependent children and their age.
  2. Meant for Charles de Gaulle, this report would not be completed until the presidency of Georges Pompidou.
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