There is a sweet spot in France’s cultural life, and maybe in the cultural life of all countries, where a thinker finds himself able to “raise profound questions” in a way that requires neither profundity nor questioning on the part of his readers. Never has a French book hit that sweet spot quite so squarely as the brochure Indignez-Vous! (roughly, “Get Mad!”), which appears under the name of 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, a politicized veteran of the French resistance. Holding only 14 pages of text, selling for 3 euros a pop, Hessel’s booklet promises young readers that they, too, can claim the high heroism earned by those who fought Hitler, with no more peril or intellectual exertion than it requires to watch a five-minute YouTube video. That sounds like a good deal to the youth of France. Since it was published in October, Indignez-Vous has sold about 650,000 copies.
Hessel’s diatribe is a meandering collection of a half-dozen slack-minded high-school-newspaper-level op-eds. It draws its popularity in part from Hessel’s extraordinary biography. Born into a literary family in Berlin, he moved to France with his parents as a boy. His Jewish father was a friend of Walter Benjamin and Marcel Duchamp. Hessel himself joined the resistance, was captured, and survived deportation to two concentration camps (Buchenwald and Dora).
After the war he became a diplomat and was “involved with” (as he puts it) the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In other words, he was a gofer for the French U.N. diplomat Henri Laugier. To listen to Indigène, Hessel’s publisher, however, you would almost think he had penned the declaration himself. Whatever his role, he is one of the last living people who can speak from, and for, a France that really was something, culturally and politically, a France in which there were trustworthy authorities. Nothing wrong with that. A similar search for trustworthy authorities, and a similar trek back in time to find them, is what the Tea Party is engaged in in our own country.
The real appeal of Indignez-Vous! is that it confers on France’s modern-day political activists the explicit blessing of a resistance hero. Hessel supports the teachers and students who are striking against education reform, the union members who are marching over the raising of the French retirement age from 60 to 62, and the antiglobalization activists of Attac. “How can there not be enough money today to maintain and extend these achievements,” he asks, “given that the production of wealth has grown considerably since the Liberation?” As it happens, this is a question with a simple answer: There is not enough money because the production of rights and benefits has outstripped the production of wealth.
But that is not the basis on which Hessel prefers to conduct the argument. What today’s protesters are fighting for, Hessel thinks, and what the government of Nicolas Sarkozy is threatening, are “the social achievements of the Résistance.” The 1943 “program” of the Conseil National de la Résistance laid out a strategy for winning the war and governing the country thereafter. Largely Communist-inspired, it called for “economic democracy,” “subordination of particular to general interests,” “returning to the nation the monopolized means of production,” and “participation of the workers in the management of the economy.” Hessel embraces the romantic myth that French socialism was won on the battlefield, although it was the postwar National Assembly, not the resistance, that built the French welfare state.
Sarkozy is hardly the first French president to bow to economic reality and tack against the ideas in the resistance council’s program of socialism. Hessel’s beloved François Mitterrand, while president, introduced pro-market reforms in 1983 after his program of nationalizations threatened to cripple the French economy. No prime minister privatized more public companies than the Socialist Lionel Jospin did between 1997 and 2002. Never does Hessel accuse them of doing Hitler’s handiwork.