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The 94-Year-Old Frenchman Behind ‘Occupy’

Stephane Fredric Hessel's best-selling brochure helped launch the movement.

by
Michel Gurfinkiel

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December 4, 2011 - 12:01 am
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A little more than 13 months ago, a left-wing French publishing house specializing in Third World advocacy published a very short (32 pages) and very cheap (three euros) political brochure titled Indignez-vous! (Time for Outrage!).

The author was nonagenarian Stephane Frederic Hessel: a Nazi camp survivor, a former ambassador, and a regular French talk show guest. The booklet was an instant bestseller: one million copies in the first ten weeks, 1.5 million in the first year.

It still remains, as of today, the number one book on French bestseller lists.

The reasons for such a stunning success were quite obvious. Those people who read a bit, but not much, were thrilled to buy what passed for a serious essay by an important person for less than the price of a magazine. They were even happier to find out that Hessel’s philosophy was a perfect fit for their own intellectual and ethical size.

The Great Old Man urged contemporary youth to get “outraged” about poverty and injustice and to fight for a better world, just as he had done seventy years earlier as a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance. Who on Earth would contend with that, especially when the enemy was not the Third Reich, but benign modern democracies?

Moreover, the villain Hessel repeatedly mentioned and attacked was Israel — the country most people in France love to hate already.

Hessel’s booklet was almost as successful worldwide as in France proper. It was quickly translated and published in ten European languages and in Hebrew; overall sales hit 3.5 million copies. Translations were then produced in ten more languages.

The only exception in terms of popularity was the U.S.: the pamphlet was just inserted in The Nation’s April 7-14 issue. Practical Americans, even of the liberal persuasion, apparently had trouble selling it or buying it as a book.

Hessel’s influence on the ground grew to dwarf his sales accomplishments.

Outragedmovements claiming to follow the old Frenchman’s philosophy bloomed in countries hit by recession or bankruptcy, like Spain, Greece, the UK, Chile, and more recently the United States. Strangely enough, even Israel — in spite of its comparatively good economic and financial shape and Hessel’s rabid anti-Zionism — was hit by the movement last summer.

Alloutraged movements tended to follow a single pattern. Citizens with no explicit political affiliation occupied major streets, squares, or public spaces for days or weeks, day and night, insisting upon “social justice” or “change.” They erected little booths and tent villages, both in order to sleep there and to make it more difficult to be moved out or blocked by police the following day.

Most democratic governments were reluctant to suppress such behavior, even if they were legally entitled to do so. In some countries, like Spain, there might even have been a not-too-secret understanding between the left-wing cabinet poised to lose the coming election and the demonstrators, who disclaimed in advance whatever measures a future conservative cabinet would take. (Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s socialists lost to Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives on November 20.)

Clearly, the so-called Arab Spring was connected to Hessel’s outraged campaign. The demonstrations and sit-ins that led to the eviction of both Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were modeled after Spain’s Indignados operations. This factor might not have been decisive by itself, but it did deter Western powers from extending support to leaders who were previously their local allies.

The much more complex Libyan, Yemenite, Bahraini, and Syrian upheavals started as replicas of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. There was evidence of direct contacts between Arab insurgents and Western outraged groups or Western NGOs close to the global outraged movement.

As for the Israeli replica, it was launched in part by left-wing activists close to similar American and/or European NGOs, and was designed at some point as a tool to topple the Netanyahu cabinet. It didn’t work out that way: the core of the local outragedIsraelis were just democratically minded patriots complaining about supposed negative byproducts of a two-decade economic boom, like the rise of real estate prices in cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Hessel may not have been the real thinker and promoter of his movement.

At 93 (last year) and 94 (now), he seems to enjoy excellent health and clarity of thought. He may indeed have written the few pages that turned him into an instant world icon. However, the pages were more likely provided by a ghostwriter. A convincing argument, in this respect, is that Time for Outrage! is a party line operation. It is less about Hessel expressing his views than about others setting an agenda and Hessel endorsing it.

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