‘Indignez-Vous!’ by Stéphane Hessel

Reviewed by Claire Trevien

This review was originally written on 31 January 2011 but for various reasons can only be published now – as such it may seem rather out of date, but try to put your mind back to the January climate and its backdrop of student protests!

Indignez-Vous! is the title of the unassuming bestseller by Stéphane Hessel that’s been taking France by storm. At just 30 pages, written by a nonagenarian and published in a south of France attic, this political essay has all the makings of an underdog cunningly overtaking its more expensive peers. And yet, when read, its success seems unavoidable in the current climate. For one, the timing is fortuitous, though it is, for now, only available in French, its population are not blind to the protests spreading like wildfire in the UK, Tunisia, and at the time of writing this, Egypt. While to an outside eye the French have had more than their fair share of protests, these are generally dominated by those already in possession of a job and seeking to add security, an increase in pay or fewer hours to their load. We have not seen the end of protests from the increasingly unemployed younger generation and nor should we.

Part of Hessel’s success comes from the part he played in the French Resistance during WW2 giving his reasoning more credibility. In 1941, Hessel left France to join the De Gaulle in London but soon returned in March 1944 with orders to liaise between different resistance groups, and facilitate the transmission of information in preparation for D-day. Unfortunately, Hessel was betrayed and arrested on 10 July 1944 and experienced the camps of Bunchenwald, Rottleberode and Dora. Hessel’s post-WW2 life is no less interesting. As a diplomat with the UN, for instance, he helped to draft the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. He reacted to the election of Jacques Chirac in 1995 by becoming a socialist, further debunking the common wisdom that one becomes more conservative with age.

Unsurprisingly, the Resistance plays a central role in the opening pages of Hessel’s essay as a blueprint for a state of mind that should be applied to today’s situations. Hessel states that the Resistance was based on a feeling of indignation and reminds the reader of the achievements of the Resistance government as a consequence of this indignation after the war: the creation of Social Security to ensure to all citizens the means of surviving even when unable to work, an independent free press, the right to education. There is perhaps no need to remind ourselves that these are all under threat today, not just in France, but in the UK too thanks to cuts (and increase in costs) to these vital services. Indignation during WW2 might seem simpler to muster than today, Hessel concedes, acknowledging the numerous inequalities that tug for our attention, but that is not a reason to give up. To Hessel, there is nothing worse than indifference, it’s better to pick one or two important subjects of indignation (as he does) than none at all.

The rich life Hessel has led is part of the fabric of this essay which delves into his later experiences, such as his visits to Gaza in 2008 and 2009. The example of Gaza in the essay serves to illustrate Hessel’s point that neither violence nor terrorism are effective. ‘Violence turns its back on hope’ he writes, and hope of non-violence is the path that must be followed. Hessel’s choice of closing words, ‘To Create is to Resist / To Resist is to Create’ summarize the educated optimism that pervades the essay. The poetry of Hessel’s prose, his peppering of literary and artistic references (including an illustration, with Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus), his sudden dives into minutiae, intensify rather than distract from his message. Indignez-Vous! is a rousing, resonant work that needs to be read by all generations, now.