Vive la révolution: surprise publishing hit

 

A 16-page pamphlet in which the 93-year-old author reflects on global income inequality and the politics of climate change doesn’t sound like the formula for a publishing sensation. But that’s what Stéphane Hessel’s book has become. Since it was published two months ago, Indignez-vous!, a call to the youth of France to rouse their outrage against the world’s injustices, has sold 800,000 copies. Its small Montpellier publishing house has been overwhelmed by demand, with 11 print-runs sold and multiple translations already in preparation. I tried six bookshops in Paris before finding the last copy in a department store. “That’s my personal record,” said the cashier at the till, shaking his head. “Fifteen copies sold in an hour.”

In the pamphlet, Hessel, a French Resistance hero, passionately exhorts his compatriots to rediscover the spirit and ideals of those who opposed the Nazi occupation and apply them to the modern world’s ills. “Indifference is crippling; be angry, revolt – peacefully – for what you believe in,” he writes, before decrying the “international dictatorship of the financial markets”, the huge gap between rich and poor, the treatment of Palestinians, environmental degradation and the rolling back of France’s welfare system. “This is an appeal to citizens, young and old, to take responsibility for the things in our society that don’t work,” he writes. “I wish that every one of you find your own reason for indignation. It’s precious.”

The book is extremely short, vague and, as the author admits, not particularly original. So what, apart from a €3 retail price, explains its stunning success?

The first reason is the author himself. Hessel is a bone fide moral giant in France. Born in Berlin in 1917, his family emigrated to Paris when he was seven (his mother was the inspiration for the female character in the love triangle in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim).

During the Nazi occupation, he joined the Resistance, was caught by the Gestapo, tortured and deported to Buchenwald. But just before he could be hanged, he swapped identities with a dead French prisoner. Hessel was brought to a second German camp, at Dora-Mittelbau, but managed to escape. After the war, he became a diplomat and was involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In some respects, Stéphane Hessel is the book’s message, and his age gives the text a poignant edge. “Ninety-three years old,” he begins. “It’s pretty much the final stage. The end is not far.”

And yet the pamphlet’s success also reflects something broader: the left’s genuine sense of disenchantment with the direction of France under Nicolas Sarkozy, and its frustrated desire for an outlet.

The book, a social democratic manifesto, appeared at a moment when the social climate was tense, just after protests against Sarkozy’s pension reform had petered out. Buying it is a political act. Hessel “catalysed” the hopes of many French people, the philosopher Edgar Morin said. “His message is: dare, protest, don’t retreat into resignation.”

As the book’s sales have continued rising, economists, thinkers and politicians have all been weighing into the debate. Is indignation an appropriate moral response? How can it be acted on? What’s the right balance between outrage and analysis?

“Nothing would be less French than apathy and indifference,” said prime minister François Fillon. “But indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.”

Stéphane Hessel accepts as much: his book is not a political programme but merely the first stage in a process. His publisher might well agree to a follow-up.