Henriette Steinberg: “The fate of others is played out at the level of the planet. »
Secretary General of the French Secours Populaire (SPF) since 2019, where she has been an activist since childhood, Henriette Steinberg publishes Never lower your eyes (1). She recounts her rejection of the injustice that – daughter of Jewish immigrants who became communists, originally from Eastern Europe – she inherited, the meaning and importance of solidarity – in France, as in the world – and makes tangible the incompressible desire to act that has always driven him.
How did you start getting involved with Secours Populaire?
I have mobilized for the Secours populaire for decades. My first really conscious collection dates back to the period of the great miners’ strike of 1963. I was 12 years old, and the association had called for collecting money so that the children of miners could have holidays while their parents had no pay. It was not the first time that I had acted for Secours Populaire. My mother sent me a photo on which, at 10, I sell lily of the valley for the SPF committee of the 10 e borough. Suffice to say that it is an old business! I have always been concerned to see how it was possible to act and I found the answer with the Secours populaire. It was when I was 10 and it still is. This sense of commitment is still there, intact. For me, this means that everyone can act. You don’t have to wait for others to do it. Take action and have an impact. Within the Secours populaire, I find the concrete nature of the action.
Can you come back to the family origins of your activism?
This taste for commitment was shared by both my parents. This is also explained by the fact that both were alive after the war, while a very large part of the family was no longer. On my father’s side, they were killed in the Iasi pogroms (perpetrated in 1941 by the fascist regime of Romanian leader Ion Antonescu – editor’s note), and, on my mother’s side, they perished in the death marches. Because they were Jews, their families were murdered, exterminated. Words have meaning. This experience convinced them of the absolute necessity of fighting. If we don’t fight, we die. My father wrote a book on Jewish resistance in occupied Europe. For him, only those who fought had a chance of surviving. I was brought up in this spirit. My parents always told me: “If you’re called a dirty Jew, you hit first, you argue afterwards, if necessary. » I knew how to defend myself and, a little later, I practiced Vo Vietnam, the bare-handed combat sport of the Vietnamese fighting against their successive colonizers, for more than fifteen years. It helps to feel comfortable. In addition to the ability to fight it out, I also learned from my parents not to keep objects related to militant activity on me and never to remember the names and faces of the people I met. It is a defense strategy that they had deployed as active militants. The idea behind it was simple. If you don’t recognize people, you won’t speak.
Tell us about your parents’ political involvement?
My mother joined the Communist Party in 1947 and died at age 86, up to date with her dues. She was also active in Secours Populaire from a very early age. I don’t even know when it started. It was part of her. She had a political activity and a solidarity activity. My father, he joined in 1958, when De Gaulle returned, because he feared the coming to power of a dictator, even if, later, he changed his approach, and attended his funeral, in Colombey. The Communist Party was my parents’ commitment, there was no question. When I wrote the funeral tribute for Julien Lauprêtre, who directed the Secours populaire before me, I thought of Picasso’s sentence: “I came to the PC as one goes to the fountain. » Julien had made this approach his own and he had added the need to find the stones to build the fountain and the source of water that would supply it. This is also my vision. There is the theoretical aspect, but for it to take on meaning, it must be put into practice. We don’t live by theory alone. Solidarity is the practical aspect. Our approach at the SPF is to weigh in on the consequences. The causes are another subject, there may be different approaches. But everyone can come together to weigh in on the consequences of the dramas. This vision was embodied when the Malpasset dam broke in 1959. The SPF led by Julien Lauprêtre mobilized immediately, without asking whether the mayor was on the right or on the left. And this is the first time that Julien Lauprêtre has obtained the support of Humanity to this approach. For us, what is important is the concrete analysis of the situation: what is happening, what can we do, what means do we need to acquire?
“Everyone must understand that we only have one planet and that solidarity must be planetary. This international dimension was one of the essential elements of my commitment to the SPF. »
Why did you decide to write this book ?
The idea is not mine. After participating in Zoé Varier’s show, A particular daythe editorial director of Laffont editions wanted a meeting and asked me if I was considering writing my memoirs. I burst out laughing and replied: “Certainly not, I act. My memoirs are not a subject. » He then offered to put me in touch with a person who would listen to me, write , up to me to modify if necessary. He convinced me by telling me that I would make the Secours populaire better known, which could encourage others to join our process. I accepted, specifying that the most important thing for me was to highlight the activity of the association in the world, which is less known. Everyone must understand that we only have one planet and that solidarity must be planetary. This international dimension was, from the start, one of the essential elements of my commitment to Secours Populaire. My very first mission, with Julien Lauprêtre, took place in Spain, after Franco’s death. It was our first time there. We went to meet the very first prisoners released from Carabanchel prison, to show them our solidarity and recall the need to free those who were still locked up there.
You mention in the book certain missions that you carried out in the world, for the Secours populaire…
For example, I led a somewhat complicated delegation to Nicaragua for the SPF, with two doctors to set up a health support program. Obviously, the American military, nearby in El Salvador, were not at all happy to see us. During the stopover in Honduras, one of them said to me: “Madam, your presence is not welcome. » And when I returned to France, our apartment was broken into, the only box stolen was that of the photos. Before returning home, I had gone to the SPF to deposit all my photos there, in particular those of the leaders I had met… The parental advice had borne fruit.
Why is the international question so important to you?
Because we don’t choose the place where we are born. For me, it’s simple. I was born in a place, I can act there, but I am not only concerned with my personal fate. The fate of others is played out at the level of the planet. The French Secours Populaire is hexagonal. In other words, we do not implement an SPF elsewhere. We are by no means the only holders of truth. And we know that, all over the world, there are people like us for whom solidarity makes sense, with whom we build useful projects for the populations concerned. The strength and power of the Secours populaire is this choice to weigh in on the consequences. It’s not theoretical. We learn about the concrete conditions of the situations experienced, we meet on the spot those who act and we see how to work together. It’s simple. This vision of solidarity between equals also fueled the creation of the movement in favor of Copain du monde children. What idea presided over it? The fact that they are today’s children who will build the world of tomorrow. It is therefore essential that they get to know each other, not hate each other, love each other rather than kill each other. It’s basic, but it’s very powerful. There was recently, in this context, a meeting of children Friend of the world, solidarity actors and actresses, from many countries. And there was no need to explain anything. They were full of ideas, respectful of each other and happy to meet. They were curious to understand how everyone does and lives. Children do not ask themselves the question of who is who. In no place in the world do they ask their buddies of identity card. But we must recognize that it is more difficult to collect for activities carried out in the world beyond the dramatic emergencies relayed by the media. One of the difficulties seems to us to be that the teaching does not encourage this openness to the world. Yet we are at the heart of what popular education means.
« These are the children of today who will build the world of tomorrow. It is therefore essential that they get to know each other, not hate each other, love each other rather than kill each other. It’s basic, but it’s very powerful. »
Do you feel that commitment is a value that is being lost?
No way. On the other hand, it is not often promoted by the media; for example, with regard to youth, accused of all the evils while they are the ones who bear the full brunt of the difficulties encountered today in our country. During the Covid, everyone was able to see on television young people from neighborhoods in difficulty, who until then we were told were all potential assassins, going to bring food to people who could not move. We were only told about it for a few days. But they continued. And no one ever talks about it. This desire to get involved is consubstantial with who I am and it exists everywhere in society. It is not because those who make the dominant discourse do not see it that it does not exist. Whenever the Secours populaire calls for initiatives, many respond present, throughout France. This is how we manage to have 1,300 places where the SPF is present on the territory through its federations, committees and branches, including mobile branches thanks to its 87,000 volunteer collectors. Not because someone, within the management, in Paris, would have decided it, but because we count the number of places where there are collector animators who deploy solidarity for people around them. What has also contributed to this development is the setting up of Solidaribus, which bring aid and materials to places where there are no more public services, no more businesses. We are always looking for new answers that allow people in difficulty to receive the support to which the SPF volunteer fundraisers are attached and to be able, in turn, to join the chain of solidarity which makes life possible and fraternal. Secours populaire is solidarity, not assistance. Everyone contributes to it with equal rights and duties.
What do you get out of this commitment?
A great happiness. It’s what makes me live. I never get frustrated over things that didn’t work out. There is just one fight that needs to be continued. One day we are born, one day we die, in between, we can do something. It is a pity to remain idly by. First, because we lose a lot, but also because acting works. And that is the strength of Secours Populaire. We show it. If you stay in your corner complaining about what others don’t do, you can only blame yourself.