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Behind an unlikely bestseller, a fierce political conscience

Stéphane Hessel, a writer, diplomat and concentration camp survivor, died on Feb. 27 aged 95. Here is a look back at his book "Indignez-vous!" -- a rallying cry for the French to combat injustice -- and the political conscience that inspired it.

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There’s a new book topping the bestseller list in France, and it’s not a Swedish thriller, a vampire novel, the tale of a teenage wizard, or even the latest from much-hyped French Goncourt prize winner Michel Houellebecq.

Rather, the current toast of the literary world is Stéphane Hessel, a 93-year-old former resistance member and diplomat, whose 13-page political essay called “Indignez-vous !” (or “Get indignant!”) has sold a whopping 600,000 copies since it hit shelves last October.

The book, which was released by Indigène -- a tiny publishing house based in the south of France -- and is on sale for an uncommonly cheap 3 euros, is a call for the French population to get angry about the injustices of modern society. Amid widespread disillusionment with the policies of centre-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the text could become a rallying cry for the French left as it braces itself to challenge the incumbent in the 2012 presidential election. Hessel, for his part, is a vocal supporter of Socialist Party head Martine Aubry.

"Get indignant," an unlikely French bestseller
"Get indignant," an unlikely French bestseller

But while “Indignez-vous!” incites people to tackle a slew of current problems (treatment of immigrants, the Mideast conflict, global warming, the economic crisis), the book is driven by a fiery political conscience shaped by turbulent 20th century history.

Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917 to a Jewish family that converted partly to Protestantism. His parents, painter Helen and writer Franz, were said to be inspirations for two of the three lead characters in “Jules et Jim”, an autobiographical novel about a love triangle written by their friend Henri-Pierre Roché. The book was famously adapted to the screen by New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut.

The Hessel family emigrated to France in 1925, and Stéphane became a naturalised French citizen in 1937. Two years later, he enrolled in the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he became an avid reader of existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Resistance, then and now

During the Nazi occupation of France, Hessel was active in the resistance, joining General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French organisation in London. But when he returned to France in 1944, Hessel was arrested, tortured, and deported to the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps, where he managed to escape hanging.

Hessel’s experiences during World War II form the ideological basis of “Indignez-vous”, which asserts that the spirit of French resistance is needed now as much as it was 70 years ago. “We call on the younger generations to carry on the legacy of the Resistance and its ideals”, Hessel writes, citing “the gap between the poorest and the richest” as one of many reasons to be indignant today.

Hessel also writes that the civil liberties he helped articulate while drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights voted by the UN General Assembly after World War II still are not enjoyed by everyone, more than 60 years later. It was this conviction that led Hessel to take up various causes in later years, during which he served as France’s ambassador to the UN. He has been a champion of illegal immigrants’ rights in France, noting in a 2008 interview with FRANCE 24 that he was “revolted” by the “way the current government treats illegal immigrants”.

Hessel, who in 2006 was named Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, has also been a vocal supporter of a boycott of Israeli products in protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. In his interview with FRANCE 24, Hessel said that criticisms of Israel were muted, because “everyone is afraid of being called an anti-Semite. This reticence must be conquered”. Israeli treatment of Palestinians is indeed a major theme of his essay, in which he notes: “Jews themselves perpetrating war crimes is intolerable. Alas, the past offers few examples of people learning lessons from their own history”.

But beyond specific issues that are dear to Hessel, his book’s appeal for a more active political engagement carries a broader philosophical argument. Anger toward status quo is useful, Hessel suggests, because resulting actions can change things for the better.

“I wish for all of you, for each one of you, to have your reason for indignation”, he writes. “It is precious”.
 

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