The little red book that swept France

The latest call to (non-violent) arms has turned a 93-year-old war hero into a publishing phenomenon. John Lichfield reports

Take a book of just 13 pages, written by a relatively obscure 93-year-old man, which contains no sex, no jokes, no fine writing and no startlingly original message. A publishing disaster? No, a publishing phenomenon.

Indignez vous! (Cry out!), a slim pamphlet by a wartime French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, is smashing all publishing records in France. The book urges the French, and everyone else, to recapture the wartime spirit of resistance to the Nazis by rejecting the "insolent, selfish" power of money and markets and by defending the social "values of modern democracy".

The book, which costs €3, has sold 600,000 copies in three months and another 200,000 have just been printed. Its original print run was 8,000. In the run-up to Christmas, Mr Hessel's call for a "peaceful insurrection" not only topped the French bestsellers list, it sold eight times more copies than the second most popular book, a Goncourt prize-winning novel by Michel Houellebecq.

The extraordinary success of the book can be interpreted in several ways. Its low price and slender size – 29 pages including blurbs and notes but just 13 pages of text – has made it a popular stocking-filler among left-wing members of the French chattering classes. Bookshops report many instances of people buying a dozen copies for family and friends.

But Mr Hessel and his small left-wing publisher (which is used to print runs in the hundreds) say that he has evidently struck a national, and international nerve, at a time of market tyranny, bankers' bonuses and budget threats to the survival of the post-war welfare state. They also suggest that the success of the book could be an important straw in the wind as France enters a political cycle leading to the presidential elections of May 2012.

In a New Year message Mr Hessel, who survived Nazi concentration camps to become a French diplomat, said he was "profoundly touched" by the success of his book. Just as he "cried out" against Nazism in the 1940s, he said, young people today should "cry out against the complicity between politicians and economic and financial powers" and "defend our democratic rights acquired over two centuries".

In a party-political aside which might or might not undermine his new status as political prophet, Mr Hessel went on to imply that "resistance" should begin with a rejection of President Nicolas Sarkozy and a vote for the Parti Socialiste.

The book has not pleased everyone. It also contains a lengthy denunciation of Israeli government policies, especially in the Gaza Strip. Although the final chapter calls vaguely for a "non-violent" solution to the world's problems, the book also suggests that "non-violence" is not "sufficient" in the Middle East. Mr Hessel, whose father was a German jew who emigrated to France, has been accused by French jewish organisations of "anti-semitism".

Mr Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917. He emigrated to France with his family when he was seven. He joined General Charles de Gaulle in London in 1941 and was sent back to France to help organise the resistance. He was captured, tortured and sent to concentration camps in Germany. After the war, he helped to draft the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Jean-Pierre Barou, the joint head of the small Montpellier-based publishing house Indigène, which commissioned the book, said Mr Hessel had revealed a "deep sense of indignation in France".

As a political tract, the book contains no especially original analysis of the world's problems.

"They dare to tell us that the State can no longer afford policies to support its citizens," Mr Hessel says. "But how can money be lacking ... when the production of wealth has enormously increased since the Liberation (of France), at a time when Europe was ruined? The only explanation is that the power of money ... has never been so great or so insolent or so selfish and that its servants are placed in the highest reaches of the State."

The originality of the book is the suggestion that an organised "Resistance" is now called for, just like in 1940. "We, veterans of the resistance ... call on young people to revive and pass on the heritage and ideals of the Resistance," the book says.

How people should resist the power of money and the markets – by peaceful means, the book insists – is not made entirely clear.

A message of resistance

* "I would like everyone – everyone of us – to find his or her own reason to cry out. That is a precious gift. When something makes you want to cry out, as I cried out against Nazism, you become a militant, tough and committed. You become part of the great stream of history ... and this stream leads us towards more justice and more freedom but not the uncontrolled freedom of the fox in the hen-house."

* "It's true that reasons to cry out can seem less obvious today. The world appears too complex. But in this world, there are things we should not tolerate... I say to the young, look around you a little and you will find them. The worst of all attitudes is indifference..."

* "The productivist obsession of the West has plunged the world into a crisis which can only be resolved by a radical shift away from the 'ever more', in the world of finance but also in science and technology. It is high time that ethics, justice and a sustainable balance prevailed..."

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