Abbé Pierre, the conscience of France, dies at the age of 94

ABBÉ Pierre, an outspoken Roman Catholic priest who renounced wealth to became one of the most revered figures in France for his tireless campaigning for the homeless and the poverty-stricken, died yesterday at the age of 94.

A frail, bent figure with his trademark beret, black cape and walking stick, the former resistance fighter who was widely regarded as the conscience of the nation, was cherished as a living saint and topped French popularity polls for years, beating sporting icons, pop stars and politicians.

The priest came third in last year's TV poll of the "Greatest Frenchman of All Time" behind Second World War leader Charles de Gaulle and the 19th-century scientist, Louis Pasteur.

The president, Jacques Chirac, led tributes to the priest, who had been in failing health in recent years and died in a Paris hospital early yesterday morning of a lung infection after being admitted on 14 January suffering from bronchitis.

Mr Chirac said: "All of France is deeply touched. It has lost an immense figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness. Abb Pierre represented the spirit of rebellion against misery, suffering, injustice and the strength of solidarity."

Born Henri Grous, the fifth child of rich merchant in the south-eastern city of Lyons, on 5 August, 1912, he was educated by Jesuit monks before giving up his comfortable life to enter the Capuchins, one of the humblest Catholic orders, where he was ordained a priest in 1938.

During the war, Abb Pierre forged fake identity papers allowing French Jews to escape to safety in Switzerland.

Later, the priest launched his own battle against homelessness by creating his Companions of Emmaus movement, which raises funds mainly by recycling and reselling what other people have thrown out.

With the help of an ex-convict who shared his vision, the priest renovated an old building in the Paris suburbs to provide shelter for the homeless.

Emmaus now works in more than 50 countries and has 10,000 apartments and homes in the Paris region alone.

Abb Pierre served as a Christian Democrat member of parliament from 1945 to 1951, but his campaigning first achieved national attention with a radio broadcast made on a bitterly cold winter night in 1954 when he moved the nation with his passionate plea for help after a three-month-old baby died of hypothermia in an unheated slum and a homeless woman froze to death in the street clutching an eviction order.

Almost 50 years later, Abb Pierre launched an almost identical appeal, this time directed at France's political leaders.

The issue of homelessness returned to the top of the political agenda last month when a pressure group pitched tents for homeless people in Paris to draw attention to their plight. Put on the defensive, the centre right government last week unveiled a bill that will give people a legal right to housing - just days before Abb Pierre's death.

Despite his apparently exemplary life, Abb Pierre was no stranger to controversy.

In 1996 he made statements supporting his close friend Roger Garaudy, a Communist writer who had converted from Catholicism to Islam and called into question the reality of the Holocaust.

The abb's defenders said he was seeking justice for the Palestinians and was not anti-Semitic. In 2005, he shocked the Church by speaking out in support of married and female priests and admitted to having broken his vows of chastity.