Lucie Coutaz, Abbé Pierre’s traveling companion for forty years

Long forgotten, she was his secretary, but also the one who accompanied him in his most illustrious and most intimate battle. The biopic Abbé Pierre, a life full of struggle pays tribute to him, in the guise of Emmanuelle Bercot.

“Without her, Emmaus would not exist,” Abbé Pierre declared. Without her, ‘Abbé Pierre’ wouldn’t really have existed either. The scene is depicted in Abbé Pierre, a life full of struggle, the biopic of Frédéric Tellier, with Benjamin Lavernhe, in cinemas since November 8. When they met in Lyon in 1943, Lucie Coutaz and the monk, whom we still know only as Henri Grouès, were involved in the resistance. He needs false papers: it is she who proposes to register this pseudonym that he will never leave.

Lucie Coutaz will be Abbé Pierre’s rock, on whom he will rely for forty years. However, few people remember the woman who co-founded the Emmaus movement. “Male figures tend to overshadow partners who are less in the spotlight,” says Frédérique Kaba, director of social missions at the Abbé Pierre Foundation. However, their common history is an exceptional alliance that has given rise to a system based on the circular economy, collection and recovery. But also about the way in which we, with our differences, ‘make’ society.

Lucie Coutaz’s character had been forgotten and was even missing from the film Winter 54, Abbé Pierre, by Denis Amar (1989), with Lambert Wilson in the title role. It occupies a central place in that of Frédéric Tellier, in the guise of Emmanuelle Bercot: “She is the woman of the shadows in the full sense of the word and has done everything to be so,” says the actress . “Her discreet character and her modesty led her to this self-destruction, even though she had the temperament of a leader.”

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Lucie Coutaz was born on May 9, 1899 in Grenoble and grew up in poverty. Memories that, unlike those of Abbé Pierre, from a bourgeois family from Lyon, will never leave her and will contribute to her vocation to help the most needy. At the age of 16, the teenager was struck by Pott’s disease, a paralysis of the vertebrae due to tuberculosis. Plastered and corseted, she had to lie on a shelf from 1916 to 1921. At the age of 22, she made a pilgrimage to Lourdes and returned miraculously healed. Lucie Coutaz will never stop moving.

Shorthand typist, secretary, she first headed the Christian trade unions in the city of Grenoble. When World War II broke out, she officially became a social worker, responsible for supporting low-income families. But also resistant, whose role will be crucial in the region (she will be awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1945). This is where she begins to work with the man whose struggles and life she will share, even privately.

Portrait of Lucie Coutaz in the room of Abbé Pierre in the Emmaus community of Esteville, in Normandy. Motte Jules / Motte Jules/ABACA

woman of action

When the war ended, Abbe Pierre ‘went’ to Paris, where he became a chaplain. He suggested that Lucie Coutaz join him there: but on site he was often absent, busy with conferences and other meetings. When he tells her about his plan to become an MP, she replies: “I’m going home!” Finally, she will conduct her first election campaign with him. But their great work will be the founding of the Emmaus Movement, in 1951. Abbé Pierre has an idea, a vision: to welcome the most needy, those who have nowhere to go, in a destroyed building in Neuilly-Plaisance that he acquired and retyped . To finance the operation: the recovery, renovation and sale of objects by the “companions” welcomed there. Lucie Coutaz takes care of the administrative, management and accounting tasks. “She was involved in the ‘doing’, in the implementation,” explains Frédérique Kaba. Lucie Coutaz’s approach was of the order of realism, in the fact that he dealt with individuals, concepts and principles of reality. He is someone who finds solutions, who brings possibilities into the realm of possibility.” And whoever knows how to make his voice heard, raises his voice if necessary in the presence of the abbot and the companions.

Among the nicknames the latter gave him: “Lulu The Terror”, or “The Control Tower”. In the biopic of Frédéric Tellier, her character does not hesitate to insult the abbot when he loses himself in unrealistic projects, or when money runs out: “She was often overwhelmed by her lyrical flights or her necessarily projects. Stilted, sometimes even dangerous, Laurent remembers. Desmars, honorary chairman of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, in Paris competition . She could even scare him sometimes. But she went every time so he wouldn’t break his face. She was one of the few who knew how to say no to him, who dared to bang her fist on the table. One of the few he actually listened to. She once said that what happened at Emmaus often happened against her advice… But always with her help.”

Shadow Woman

After the winter of 1954, the deadly cold and the memorable call of Abbé Pierre on the antennas of Radio-Luxembourg (future RTL), the latter became an icon. By putting his charisma and eloquence at the service of his cause, the religious becomes a star, a celebrity. The donations are pouring in: while Abbé Pierre continues with conferences and other public appearances to mobilize the crowds, Lucie Coutaz works in the shadows: she will soon have to lead the organization and full management of the communities and reception centers of Emmaus. And protect the abbot too. In an interview on the INA website, he smilingly recalls his way of keeping the “groupies” who got too close to him at bay: “She was certainly my protection to a large extent, because when she saw an admirer who tended to to possess me a little too much, she knew how to chase away the flies. She was extremely vigilant in protecting my virtue.”

And above all, she is the guardian of everything they have built. In 1958, exhausted after four years of traveling around the world to develop Emmaus internationally, Abbé Pierre collapsed: at the age of 46, the man who had always had a fragile constitution spent twenty-two months in hospital and underwent surgery between 1954 and 1958 six operations. Coutaz was still at the helm of the movement, which had developed extensively, but now had to deal with the bankers. “He was someone who was very direct and active,” explains Frédérique Kaba. She was confronted with a world of men. And whether on the side of the precarious or on the side of the bankers, she was not fooled. When Abbé Pierre disappeared from the scene, she had to defend the foundations of what they had created together.” Her disagreements, which she expressed without exception, led to her being excluded from the management of Emmaus for a time. The film features a scene where Abbot Pierre comes out of his isolation to fight for her this time so that she can be restored.

A united couple

Although they did not, strictly speaking, have a love story, Abbé Pierre and Lucie Coutaz were a couple, a duo. “I lived day and night under the same roof for 39 years, with the same problems, the same happiness, etc.,” he says in the interview available on the INA website. “That wasn’t there, but it wasn’t there, and it’s mysterious, there was never a male-female problem. I don’t believe in his side any more than I believe in mine.” But sharing a certain intimacy and unfailing loyalty, that’s for sure.

In Abbé Pierre, a life full of struggle, we see them brushing their teeth in front of the same mirror, in Neuilly-Plaisance. And, in their old age, share a small apartment. This is perhaps the most moving scene of the film: Abbé Pierre and Lucie Coutaz, with their backs bent, taking a few steps in the courtyard of the HLM where they live, evoking the freshness that arises, the tea they go to share. cookies that he ate all. After heating up a box of ravioli, which she doesn’t touch, he helps her get into bed. The gestures are slow and tender: “For me it is more of a duo than a couple, a word that has connotations,” emphasizes Frédérique Kaba. There was something deeply brotherly between them, in the first sense of the word. This scene says something about the value they attach to care: caring for the one who is close is caring for the one who is further away. This camaraderie, which endures in a time when we lose the other and find moments of sweetness at the end of life, is also a form of devotion. In this scene there is an alignment between the values ​​they shared and their way of implementing them. »

Lucie Coutaz died on May 16, 1982 in Charenton Le Pont, under the care of Father Pierre. In the video available on the INA website he pays tribute to him: “Even in the moments when I felt the torment of not having feminine tenderness, I felt it very strongly: he was ‘a leader’.” She is buried in Esteville Cemetery, Normandy. Abbot Pierre died in 2007, after continuing their struggle for twenty-five years. It is at his side that he is buried, in accordance with their wishes. Together forever.

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