A Resistance Hero Fires Up the French
Published: March 9, 2011
PARIS — As a hero of the French Resistance, Stéphane Hessel was in exile with Charles de Gaulle in London, imprisoned in concentration camps, waterboarded in Nazi torture sessions and saved from hanging by swapping identities with an inmate who had died of typhus.
The British edition of the pamphlet.
Now, at 93, he is the author of a best seller that has become a publishing phenomenon in France. It is not the story of his life (he wrote his autobiography years ago), but a thin, impressionistic pamphlet called“Indignez-Vous!,” held together by two staples and released by a two-person publishing house run out of the attic of their home. It urges young people to revive the ideal of resistance to the Nazis by peacefully resisting the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” and defending the “values of modern democracy.”
In particular Mr. Hessel protests France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, the influence on the media by the rich, cuts to the social welfare system, French educational reforms and, most strongly, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
“When something outrages you, as Nazism did me, that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged,” he writes. “You join the movement of history, and the great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us.”
Since its publication in October “Indignez-Vous!” has sold almost 1.5 million copies in France and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Greek. Editions are planned in Slovenian, Korean, Japanese, Swedish and other languages. In the United States, The Nation magazine published the entire English text last month.
On Tuesday the British edition went on sale under the title “Time for Outrage!” with a foreword by Charles Glass, an American journalist in Europe who published it under his recently created imprint for Quartet Books. Sylvie Crossman, a former correspondent for Le Monde, and her partner, Jean-Pierre Barou, who originally published the book, said they hoped to line up an American publisher — and a movie star like Sean Penn or George Clooney to write a new foreword.
At about 4,000 words “Indignez-Vous!” can hardly be called a book. Its French edition is 29 pages, including explanatory footnotes, an illustration and just 14 pages of text.
But the timing was right. It came out a year and half before the hotly anticipated presidential election here, with the French already loudly talking politics and considering alternatives to Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now at his lowest level in approval ratings. The book’s short length and low price (it sells for about $4) made it a popular Christmas gift among left-leaning intellectuals, parents struggling to inject political activism into their children and just about anyone else who needed an extra stocking stuffer.
“Christmas came at the right moment — couldn’t have been better,” said Mr. Hessel, a courtly, gentle man who wore a three-piece pin-stripe suit and a stiffly starched white shirt from another era during an interview in his Paris apartment. “I have many friends who tell me, ‘I’ve bought 10 copies because I want to give them to 5 of my children and 5 of my friends.”
A deeper reason, perhaps, is that more than the book’s emotional ramblings, the French have embraced Mr. Hessel as one of the last living heroes of the darkest era of the 20th century, as if to tell themselves that they too can be like him.
“It’s, ‘Ah, yes, he’s the old man who has been in the Resistance and who has joined General de Gaulle,’ ” he said in superb English. “So obviously that was part of the success, I quite agree. If it had been written by a young man, it would probably not have had the same impact.”
The book was an accident. Inspired by a speech Mr. Hessel gave in 2008 to commemorate the Resistance, Ms. Crossman proposed publishing a pamphlet based on his thinking. After three interviews with Mr. Hessel she whipped his words into a text. He did a bit of editing, and voilà, 8,000 copies were printed by Ms. Crossman and Mr. Barou’s publishing house, Indigène. The only advertising was word of mouth.
Mr. Hessel confesses that although the ideas and content are his, Ms. Crossman did the writing. “My contribution was oral,” he said, adding: “She used her words. It is true that it is her language.”
The book has been a windfall for Indigène, which usually publishes books on subjects like Chinese medicine and American Indians that sell no more than a thousand or so copies apiece.
Mr. Hessel asked for no royalties from Ms. Crossman and Mr. Barou, just a promise that they give his share of the proceeds to his favorite causes.
The book has been criticized for offering no prescription for action, just attacks on the status quo. “Nothing would be less French than apathy and indifference,” Prime Minister François Fillon said about the book. “But indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.”
Ed Alcock for The New York Times
Luc Ferry, the philosopher and a former education minister, lectured Mr. Hessel in an open letter that indignation is the last passion needed in France at the moment. “This sentiment is one that is applied only to others, never to oneself, and real morality starts with demands one makes on oneself,” he wrote.
Mr. Hessel’s work also has been faulted for lacking literary value. “The book, or pamphlet, is rather poorly written,” a columnist wrote in the British newspaper The Independent. “It is repetitive, unoriginal, simplistic and frustratingly short.”
More serious is that the book has been branded anti-Semitic by some French intellectuals for its attack on Israel, in particular that country’s 2008 incursion into Gaza. The book describes Gaza, which Mr. Hessel visited with his wife in 2009, as “an open-sky prison for a million and a half Palestinians,” and says that “for Jews themselves to perpetuate war crimes is intolerable.”
On his Facebook page Pierre-André Taguieff, an expert in the history of French anti-Semitism, wrote: “Certainly he could have ended his life in a more dignified way, instead of inciting hatred against Israel, thus adding his voice to the worst of anti-Jews. Even old age doesn’t make someone impermeable to vanity, or kill the appetite for applause.”
Mr. Hessel denies that he is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. “I feel that I am completely in solidarity with Jews in the world, because I know what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “I’ve seen what it is, I am myself of Jewish origin, and therefore I can only be fully in support of the idea that the Jews, after all they’ve suffered, need a country where they are at home. I shouted my joy when Israel was founded. I said, ‘At last!’ ”
When a handful of protesters branded him a racist during a speech he gave in the Paris suburb of Montreuil last week, he said that he told them: “My love for Israel is stronger than yours. But I want it to be an honest country.”
Other critics have pointed out the book’s outrage does not mention human rights offenses in places like North Korea, Myanmar, China and Iran.
Since Mr. Hessel is widely respected as an honorable man without vanity or guile, the book has refocused attention on his extraordinary life. He was born in Berlin to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother and was baptized so that he could attend school. The family immigrated to Paris when he was 7.
With her husband’s consent his mother had a longstanding affair with Henri-Pierre Roché, the writer and art dealer. The relationship became the inspiration for Mr. Roché’s first novel and later for François Truffaut’s classic French New Wave film “Jules and Jim.” The young Stéphane character was the little girl in the film.
After the Nazi invasion of France, Mr. Hessel fled to England and then flew secretly into occupied France as a Resistance officer. Captured by the Gestapo, he spent time in concentration camps.
Asked how he survived torture, he said, “The third time of waterboarding, I said, ‘Now, I’ll tell you.’ And I told them a lie of course.” He added: “One survives torture. So many people unfortunately have been tortured. But it’s not a thing to recommend.”
After the war he worked as a junior official for the fledgling United Nations in New York, where he participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He held diplomatic posts in Vietnam, Algeria and Switzerland. Named ambassador for life, he still carries a diplomatic passport.
This week another French publisher will release another slim volume, this time a series of interviews with Mr. Hessel, titled “Engagez-Vous!” (“Get Involved!”). In it he appeals to his readers to save the environment and to embrace the positive. He also emphasizes the importance of good luck in life.
“Luck can always intervene,” he says in the book, adding: “I’ve been tremendously lucky. I went through things that turned out wrong, and I got myself out of them. So I project this luck onto history. History can bring luck: this is what we can call optimism.”