January 20, 2011

In News

Late last year, a small book by a ninety-three-year-old man unexpectedly reached the summit of France’s bestseller list. Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous! (Be Indignant!) sold more than 600,000 copies from October through December, propelling it by several hundred thousand copies over Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq’s novel, La carte et le territoire. Stéphane Hessel had written other books, and his publishers, Indigène Editions in Montpellier far from Paris, had published other volumes. But neither had ever reached the public in such numbers.

Hessel’s life would make a novel, preferably not by nihilist Houellebecq. His father, Franz Hessel, was a German Jewish writer who emigrated to France with his family in 1924 when Stéphane was seven. Franz’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché used Franz as a model for Jules in his novel Jules et Jim, the tale of a woman who loved two men that Truffaut translated to the screen in 1962. (Hessel’s mother Helen was the template for the novel’s heroine Catherine.) Stéphane grew up in a literary milieu that was shattered when Germany occupied France in June 1940. Having studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, he served in the French Army and became a prisoner of war. Following his escape from a POW camp, it took him six months to reach London to join General Charles de Gaulle and his small band of résistants. De Gaulle dispatched him to France to organize Resistance networks. The Gestapo captured him and subjected him to the baignoire, a form of torture that would later be called waterboarding. He was shipped off to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, surviving only by switching identities with an inmate who had already died. While being transferred to Bergen-Belsen, he escaped.

He became an ambassador after the war and helped draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Awards and honors followed, but he retained the indignation that drove him during the war. In Indignez-Vous!, his defenses of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and of illegal immigrants in France attest to his belief in universal rights. The book’s popularity apparently answered a public need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption, and victimization of the poor and the immigrant. Hessel had arrived in France when many Frenchmen were decrying Jewish immigration as the “threat from the East” (about which Joseph Roth wrote movingly in The Wandering Jews). The real threat from the East was the Nazism that many on the French right admired as an antidote to what they perceived as French society’s indiscipline.

“Victory for free speech? In the bizarre world of French philosophical discussion, preventing a speaker from speaking could be nothing else.”

In Indignez-Vous!, Hessel wrote, “Ninety-three years. The end is not far. How lucky to be able to take advantage of the pedestal of my political involvement: the program of the National Council of the Resistance sixty-six years ago.” He rejects claims that the state “can no longer afford policies to support its citizens” seeing as it managed to support them after the Liberation, “when Europe was ruined.” He calls on the young, many of whom have already been marching in the streets with inchoate fury at President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “reforms.” They resent Sarkozy benefiting the banks while depriving the unemployed, the old, the students, the immigrants, and the poor. Hessel’s pacific call to renew the spirit of Resistance resonates in French traditions that immigrants embrace.

Students at his alma mater, the École Normale Supérieure, invited Hessel to address them in Paris on January 18. Popular with young people throughout France, Hessel was likely to attract a full house. Then the authorities stepped in. Madame Monique Canto-Sperber, the school’s director, withdrew the invitation. A pro-Israeli French website, Des Infos, praised Mme. Canto-Sperber’s decision:

“There are men and women in this country of intellectual courage. Mme. Monique Canto-Sperber, director of the École Normale Supérieure, is an example. She has on the afternoon of January 12 2011 canceled a scandalous conference-debate.”

It’s the first time I’ve heard someone praised for the moral courage of canceling a debate. The courage was not confined to the school’s censorious director. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France praised those, such as Minister of Higher Education Valérie Pécresse and self-styled philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who favored suppressing Hessel’s right to speak.

The talk remained canceled. Victory for free speech? In the bizarre world of French philosophical discussion, preventing a speaker from speaking could be nothing else. Madame Canto-Sperber wrote in her book, Moral Disquiet in Human Life, “The freedom of thought is the first precondition of any thought process.” Her students are free to think any thought presented to them by whichever lecturers she approves. What more freedom does their thought require? French reaction has been swift. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Hessel be permitted to speak.

Last June in London on the anniversary of de Gaulle’s June 18 appeal to the French people, Hessel gave an interview in which he said:

“I was 23 in 1940, so needless to say that those five years really had a huge impact on me. This is a war that I experienced in many ways: as a simple soldier in 1939 and 1940 before the French army’s defeat, as a trainee in the Royal Air Force, as a Free French fighter working in the secret services in London, as a Resistance fighter in France, as a prisoner at the hands of the Gestapo and then as an inmate in two concentration camps… Of this long and arduous adventure, something clearly emerged: the need to give a sense to my life by defending the values that the Nazis had scorned—which led me to become a diplomat immediately after the War and to join the United Nations, where I contributed to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The old Resistance fighter is prepared for battle with those who would deny him his well-earned platform. Having taken on the Nazis, survived two concentration camps, and kept his mind and spirit intact for ninety-three years, he’ll do fine against Sarkozy’s fonctionnaires and their apologists.