“The most fragile guide my action”

“The most fragile guide my action”

Appointed Defender of Rights a year ago, Claire Hédon has made access to public services one of her fights. The former journalist returns to her action. Looking towards the most vulnerable.

You were president of ATD Fourth World before becoming Defender of Rights. What links these commitments?

Claire Hédon: I am continuing what I defended during my twenty-eight years at ATD Fourth World. I have always affirmed that poverty is not only a lack of income but also difficulties in accessing basic rights. A few weeks ago, I visited migrant camps. I saw attacks on dignity and sometimes a desire to make the exiles invisible. However, these violations of rights concern us all, because the other is not so far from us. What will happen if we one day find ourselves vulnerable like these men and women? The most fragile guide my action. If they cannot access rights, what society do we live in?

Where does this concern for others come from?

Part of it is my upbringing. And very early on, thanks to traveling, I became aware that I belonged to a privileged background. I didn’t want to stay locked in this microcosm. I grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean. My father was a naval officer, so we moved often: Montpellier, Nîmes, Hyères, then Paris when I was 12. These moves gave me the freedom to move around and opened me up to the world. I wanted to meet people, from the street corner to the other side of the globe. So I became a journalist. Which only reinforced this desire to look further. I was searching for meaning and I wanted to be useful, to commit to more social justice.

You are completing your first year as Defender of Rights. What struck you the most?

I was very struck by the extent to which the dematerialization of procedures with public services puts some citizens in difficulty. We saw this clearly with vaccination against Covid-19: it was sometimes children who made appointments for elderly parents online. I am also thinking of those who do not have a computer, an Internet connection, who live in a white area or who have difficulty filling out certain online forms. It is the retiree who cannot contact the organizations responsible for paying him his pension, the motorist who must renew his registration document or even the beneficiary of the RSA. Our 550 territorial delegates (1) take the time to meet them: it is often a relief for them to finally have a face to face. Among the 100,000 complaints we receive each year, two thirds concern access to public services. This question is crucial, the basis of confidence in our State, in our democracy.

What do you recommend?

We need to put people back into access to public services. Whether it is a physical reception or at least a telephone switchboard. Let’s take the example of the SNCF: we have been contacted by people in rural areas who cannot reserve a ticket due to the lack of a ticket office in their station. And there isn’t always a vending machine. As a result, they board the train without a ticket with the intention of purchasing it directly on board from the conductor. However, they are sometimes fined: this was the case of an 82-year-old man who paid a 100 euro fine instead of the 3.50 euro ticket. At a minimum, distributors must be reinstalled and alternative means of purchase provided.

You were also contacted by families of nursing home residents because outings remained limited even though the vaccination campaign had been carried out there.

It is important to clarify, first of all, that this was not the case everywhere and that the vast majority of teams did an admirable job during these months of pandemic. But some directors found themselves alone in charge, in an extremely complicated context. Fearing possible prosecution if a resident died from Covid-19, some have gone too far in protecting health. And therefore infringed on the freedoms of residents. But there were also good practices, from which we could draw inspiration: nursing homes, even during the first confinement, did not let the elderly die alone.

You have also highlighted cases of mistreatment and discrimination in nursing homes…

In some establishments, to compensate for the lack of staff, diapers are systematically given to elderly people. Waking up and going to bed times are sometimes set based on team schedules. Today, there is an average of six supervisors for every ten residents. We are asking to go to eight for ten. If mistreatment can be the result of individual acts, it is above all the consequence of understaffing. But the attacks on fundamental rights that we have highlighted do not date from the pandemic, even if it has worsened the situation. It is because they are vulnerable people that they are actually possible.

You have never stopped raising the voice of the most vulnerable. What did you learn from them?

I participated for thirteen years in the Fourth World popular universities at ATD. Listening to their desires and the story of their daily struggle enriched me. Proposals were born from this exchange. The founder of ATD Fourth World, Father Joseph Wresinski, experienced great poverty, he had experienced this humiliation: when people never stop deciding for you. In our collective unconscious, poverty is often linked to personal failure: this man or woman in a precarious situation has surely missed something in their life. However, throughout these years, I saw it as a failure of society. The poor are accused of not doing the right thing. Yet they have the will. But when you are in daily survival, you cannot look for work.

Have these actions at ATD Fourth World changed you?

As a journalist at Radio France, then at RFI, I paid more attention to the consequences, for the most vulnerable, of the policies deployed. Journalists may be tempted to hand their microphones to people who speak well, rather than interview those who are struggling. So I gave them the floor.

You interviewed Dr Denis Mukwege, Congolese gynecologist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the Rwandan psychiatrist Naasson Munyandamutsa. What do these figures inspire you?

I was very impressed by the courage and work of Denis Mukwege, who works for the overall care of women, not just medical.

My meeting with the psychiatrist Naasson Munyandamutsa had a profound impact on me. He rebuilt psychiatry in Rwanda after the genocide with great humanity. For a long time, he was the only psychiatrist in the country. He understood the other, what he could experience.

But I also spoke with exceptional women, like Awa Marie Coll Seck, former Minister of Health of Senegal. And I admire all those who fight for their families every day.

Who do you think of?

In Africa, some say that women are unreasonable because they do not give birth in health centers. But having spoken with many of them, I know that they do not have the means. Childbirth is not always free. And even if it is, traveling to the center represents a cost. Of course they would prefer to give birth in the hospital! As I tell you this, I think of a woman I met. When I talk to you about these subjects, or questions of precariousness and exclusion, I have faces in mind. And behind these faces, people.

(1) A platform has been launched: antidiscriminations.fr Telephone: 3928.

This interview was conducted on June 22. As we closed, Claire Hédon did not wish to comment on the extension of the health pass, the content of the bill not yet being precisely known.

>>> Also read on Lepelerin.com: Véronique Motto: “Let’s give the floor to the most vulnerable”

Claire Hédon’s bio

October 5, 1962

Birth in Paris.


First steps as a journalist on France Bleu.


Discover ATD Fourth World during a trip to Thailand.


Anime Health priority on RFI.


Becomes president of ATD Fourth World.


Appointed member of the National Ethics Advisory Committee.

July 22, 2020

Succeeds Jacques Toubon as Defender of Rights for a non-renewable six-year term.

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