13 April, 2011 — The Times Literary Supplement
A ninety-four-year-old war hero has stirred up French politics with a best-selling call for peaceful insurrection
“My life”, says Stéphane Hessel, “has given me a steady succession of reasons for outrage.” And what a life it has been: born of German Jewish parents who settled in France in 1924, Hessel studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and after the defeat of France in 1940 joined de Gaulle’s Free French in London. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo during a mission to France in 1944, he was interned in Buchenwald and Dora, and cheated certain death by escaping during his transfer to Bergen-Belsen.
After the war, Hessel joined the French diplomatic service and was one of the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When the Left came to power in France in the 1980s, he held a number of high-level administrative positions, speaking his mind even at the risk of ruffling his Socialist comrades’ feathers. He authored a damning official report on France’s clientelist practices of supporting corrupt dictators in Africa; the report was buried by President François Mitterrand, and the disastrous policy continues to this day (as highlighted by France’s diplomatic difficulties over the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions). Hessel’s ardent internationalism has not abated over the past two decades, and he has continued publicly to champion progressive causes, notably the construction of a more socially just Europe, the protection of the environment and the rights of illegal immigrants in France.
In the autumn of 2010 Hessel published Indignez-vous!, a pamphlet which has sold over a million copies in France so far and catapulted this venerable war hero (he is ninety-four years old) into the limelight. Addressed to the youth of his country (and now, with this excellent translation, to the English-speaking world), it is a rousing call to reject apathy and engage in a “peaceful insurrection” against all the injustices that blight the contemporary world: the continuing exploitation of the developing world by rich countries, the abuse of human rights by despotic governments, and the iron grip of mercantilism over the body politic, threatening the achievements in economic and social welfare for which his anti-fascist generation fought (and died). Above all, Time for Outrage! is eloquently indignant about the enduring violations of Palestinian rights by Israel, with the complicity of the international community; in this context he champions the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Hessel was particularly appalled by Israel’s war in Gaza, which killed more than 1,400 civilians and subsequently trapped the entire population of the territory in an “open air prison”; as he notes soberly, “for Jews to perpetrate war crimes is intolerable”. He ends by endorsing the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance in terms analogous to those used by de Gaulle in his prophetic warning to Israel in 1967: “we must recognize that when a country is occupied by infinitely superior military means, the popular reaction cannot be only non-violent”.
In its celebration of the civic value of resistance to oppression and injustice, Time for Outrage! is a measure of the unique place of pamphleteers in French public life. Hessel’s incendiary prose is part of a long tradition of intellectual engagement, from the late Enlightenment (his visceral, burning sense of injustice is reminiscent of Voltaire and Rousseau) through to Jean-Paul Sartre, a fellow normalien and radical dissenter whose philosophy was a lifelong inspiration. More fundamentally, Hessel’s literary plebiscite symbolizes the dominant place of the Resistance in the French collective imagination today. Along with other surviving heroes of the era – men such as Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac, Yves Guéna, Daniel Cordier and Raymond Aubrac – Hessel was the undisputed star of last year’s French commemorations of the seventieth anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s appeal of June 18. His pamphlet taps into the spirit of the French Resistance, and seeks to revive the robust conception of republican citizenship that underlay it. In this sense, the deeper reason for Hessel’s success lies in the universalism of his arguments. And as Charles Glass rightly notes in his preface to the English edition, Hessel’s writings uncannily anticipated the wave of revolts unfolding against authoritarian rule across North Africa and the Middle East.
At the same time, in its denunciation of the moral order and conformism of official French institutions, this pamphlet succinctly captures the French zeitgeist (in a truly sinister fashion, Hessel’s alma mater the École Normale banned a meeting he was due to address in January on the issue of Palestine, on the grounds that it might threaten public order). Yet Hessel’s outrage also reflects the despair of many French progressives at the vapid and fissiparous state of the Left. He does not address or seek to transcend this fragmentation; indeed it might be argued that his appeal remains rooted in a moralist individualism which inherently limits the scope for effective collective action. But Time for Outrage! compensates for this political deficiency by consummating the French rupture with the practices and values of Sarkozism: its hollowness and vulgarity, its obsession with demonizing immigrants and Islam, its failure to tackle France’s endemic social and economic problems, and its consistent pandering to the neo-Vichyist rhetoric of the Front National. The latter policy has boomeranged spectacularly: the French President’s popularity has plummeted in recent months, while support for the extreme Right has grown correspondingly. In early March 2011 an opinion poll on voting intentions for next year’s presidential elections placed the new Front National leader Marine Le Pen ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy (and all other candidates) – a trend which adds another element to Hessel’s list of causes for collective indignation, and makes his analogy with the French Resistance even more compelling than perhaps he might have imagined.
Stéphane Hessel TIME FOR OUTRAGE!Translated by Damion Searls with Alba Arrikha 40pp. Quartet. Paperback, £4.25 (US $7).978 0 7043 7222 1
Sudhir Hazareesingh is a Fellow in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford. His most recent book is Le Mythe gaullien, 2010, a study of Charles de Gaulle’s place in contemporary French political culture.