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.
What is striking about this booklet is not its arguments but its tone. Even a casual reader will sense that there is something a bit off about it. Where the resistance, leftist though it was, extolled the “puissance” and the “grandeur” of France, Hessel is more attentive to the voice of the so-called international community than to the French national interest. He is constantly spouting newly minted clichés of the antiglobalization movement, citing the number of people worldwide living on “two dollars a day.” He uses words that no 93-year-old, and no nonacademic, ever would, like “interconnectivité.” The voice in this book does not sound like that of an old-timer observing the contemporary scene. It sounds like the voice of a contemporary enragé rationalizing his activism with reference to the heroes of the past. Did Hessel even write it?
Hessel himself, in interviews given after publication, has said that he did not. After he gave a speech to an old resistants’ gathering in 2008, Sylvie Crossman of the small publishing house Indigène suggested he do a book. A onetime correspondent with Le Monde, Crossman founded the house with her partner, who had been a member of a Maoist group, championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, called the “proletarian left.” Indigène published Hessel’s pamphlet as part of the collection “Those Who March Against the Wind,” which, it informs us, is how the Omaha Indians described themselves. (Apparently this proletarian left has a lot of anthropologists in it.) Hessel had three conversations with Crossman and told the magazine Marianne, “All I did was correct a draft that had been written down quickly after a chat.” He has generously given up his author’s royalties to Indigène, which probably means we will be hearing a lot from them in the future.
What is most suspect about this work is its very idea of resistance, which one suspects no résistant ever shared: “To the young, I say: Look around you, and you will find themes to justify your indignation.” But the capital-r Résistance was resistance to Nazism. It did not have to rack its collective brains, as M. Hessel is suggesting today’s French youth do, to find something to get mad about. Resistance is not worthwhile for its own sake, or useful as a kind of therapy or self-actualization—it draws all its legitimacy from the evil it resists. There is no “heritage” of resistance unless there is a heritage of oppression—unless we today face some genuine threat on the order of Nazism.
Well, lucky us! “Fascist barbarism,” Hessel informs his readers, “has not totally disappeared.” Hessel is generally vague about what is bothering him, except in this case. “Today,” he says, “my main indignation concerns Palestine.” Israel “is massacring innocent people,” he believes. “That the Jews could themselves perpetrate war crimes is intolerable. Alas, history gives few examples of people who learn the lessons of their own history.” It is not worth laying out his whole argument, which includes regret that Hamas “has not been able to prevent rockets from being fired on Israeli cities” and praise for the people of Gaza who show a “constant preoccupation with the well-being of their children” (a preoccupation that hardly seems unique to Gazans). His booklet closes on a note that has more the ring of the collaborationist writers of 70 years ago than of Jean Moulin: “Only an Israeli,” he writes, “would describe a nonviolent person as a terrorist.”
This is a rather sad ending to a career. One would pass over Hessel in silence had his pamphlet not sold hundreds of thousands of copies and brought the dangerous drug of indignation into vogue. “More noble than rage,” wrote the magazine Marianne, “more altruistic than contempt, indignation, that purified hatred, has been elevated to the ranks of positive emotions.”
That is perhaps why Luc Ferry, the philosopher and former minister of education, warned Hessel in a magnificent open letter last week that indignation, which “blinds” and “coarsens” those in its grip, is the very last thing France needs. “This sentiment,” Ferry wrote, “is one that is directed only at others, never at oneself, and authentic morality begins with demands one makes on oneself.”
Indignez-Vous! is not much of a book. But its astonishing popularity allows us to measure just how ominously large a part of the French left views mere rage as its best route to power.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.