One night in March 1944, a young member of the French Resistance, codenamed “Greco”, landed in occupied France from England. His main mission was to connect Parisian résistants with London. He was betrayed to the Gestapo, who waterboarded him and sent him to Buchenwald. Just before he could be hanged, he swapped identities with a dead French prisoner.
And now, aged 93, Stéphane Hessel tops France’s bestseller lists. His 12-page left-wing pamphlet Indignez-vous! (“Be Indignant!”) has sold 500,000 copies since October. His tiny publisher, with just two full-time employees, is overwhelmed.
The most obvious lesson is that people should write 12-page books. The traditional 250-page model probably stopped being appropriate with the disappearance of the attention span. But Hessel’s sales also reveal something about France, and about the left everywhere.
The first curious thing you discover after forking out €3 for “le Hessel”, and finishing it over a coffee, is that there’s nothing much new in it. As Hessel himself has admitted, his ideas aren’t very original “in themselves”. He just says what most left-wing people already believe. The growing gap between rich and poor makes him indignant. So does the suffering of Palestinians, of undocumented immigrants, and of our abused planet. Everyone else ought to get indignant too, and do something, though Hessel never quite says what.
But then he doesn’t need to say much, because he is his own message. His biography gives Indignez-vous! its power. For a start, he can claim to be past the age of personal ambition. To quote his first words: “93 years old. It’s a little bit the very final stage. The end is not far.” Better yet, he never sought celebrity. In fact his German-Jewish mother was probably more famous: she inspired the female character in the love triangle in François Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim.
But the crucial fact about Hessel is that he was a résistant. Without that, nobody would have bought this book. He claims to speak for the National Council of the Resistance, which in March 1944 wrote a programme for postwar France. He also speaks as one of the diplomats who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the United Nations in 1948.
To Hessel, that declaration simply continued the ideals of the French Resistance. And those ideals, he says, still apply today. Fighting inequality now isn’t so different from fighting Hitler, he thinks.
In short, he makes an appeal brilliantly constructed to stir the contemporary Frenchwoman from her sofa, where she’s probably watching a reality TV show about mother-swapping. Having lived in France since 2002, I can testify that there’s always a lot of indignation about. People here always seem to loathe whomever they elected president.
This indignation is of course grounded in France’s two proudest traditions: the revolution of 1789 and the Resistance. Both have the same central story: indignant people rising against their own government. Their indignation is memorialised daily in schools, television programmes and the names of streets and airports. Indignation is almost the national obligation. Hessel merely tells the French what to be indignant about now.
However, the book’s success resonates beyond France. Hessel is that rare phenomenon today: an acclaimed leftist. This should be the left’s global moment, but isn’t. We’ve had an economic crisis, bailouts for bankers, a botched war for oil, neglect of climate change and the relaxation of social mores. Nonetheless, the only left-of-centre leader of any Group of Seven industrialised nation is Barack Obama. Even he could probably only have been elected in the six-week window after George W. Bush capped his presidency by wrecking capitalism. Only in Brazil is the left triumphant.
Leftist parties have failed to voice the indignation that’s been brewing since 2008. They seldom manage to put together a good narrative – a dream, if you like. For instance, whereas American Democrats typically bang on about policies, Republicans tell a story about America.
Like Obama in 2008, Hessel made himself the narrative. Both men presented themselves as individuals, not as products of leftist organisations: Obama famously hadn’t even been given a floor pass to the Democratic convention of 2000, while Hessel stood last year in an unelectable position for the small Europe Ecologie party. They both told a personal story about overcoming odds in patriotic language: they spoke not for the left but for all French or Americans, people with great traditions who deserved better than the current mess.
Neither man said much about policy. Each delivered the same simple message: “Yes we can,” or, in Hessel’s phrase, “my natural optimism, which wants that everything desirable is possible”.
What Hessel desires now is that his friend Martine Aubry, leader of France’s Socialists, be elected president next year. But as a mere mortal and lifelong apparatchik born in 1950, she might struggle. Perhaps Hessel should run instead.