Occupy Paris: How an Elderly Radical Defined Europe's Left

Stephane Hessel's ideas are lived on by Europe's new, fringe political parties. Will they stain or sustain his legacy?

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Stephane Hessel, a former French Resistance member, Nazi concentration camp survivor and post war diplomat, attends a meeting in Nantes on January 19, 2012. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

"Death is a great project." Serene but also mischievous, France's Stéphane Hessel made this observation shortly before passing away last week at the age of 95. He was right: No project is greater than one's own death. But as the celebrated author of "Indignez-vous" -- translated in the U.S. as "Time for Outrage" -- Hessel was our age's most inspiring defender of solidarity, urging Europe's youth to undertake the project of creating a society of greater political and economic equality.

Coincidentally, Hessel died at the very moment Europe (and the world's financial markets) witnessed the birth of Beppo Grillo's Five Star movement in Italy. The so-called "Grillini" channel the same outrage to which Hessel first gave voice in his three-euro pamphlet slapped together with staples and stacked like party favors at bookstores and supermarkets. That was three years, and several million copies, ago. Since then, throughout Europe, from Greece's Syriza Party to France's Front de Gauche (and, of course, our own Occupy Wall Street), political movements like the "Grillini," having taken the time for outrage, are shattering traditional political arrangements.

The "Charter" announced that France's liberation would only start, not end, with the defeat of the Nazis. Resistance, for these men and women, was the first step to revolution.

No one can say how the shards will be rearranged, or where this trans-European phenomenon will lead. But it might well be a future that Hessel himself, a true European, would not wish to recognize as his own. Though Hessel never offered a blueprint for the future, his own historical experience was one informed by war, occupation and resistance.

In March 1944, Hessel, a German-born and recently naturalized Frenchman who had joined the Free French in London, parachuted into occupied France in order to organize communication lines among resistance groups. Soon captured and tortured by the Nazis, Hessel was then imprisoned at Buchenwald. He eventually escaped and joined an American regiment that entered liberated Paris on May 8. Joining the French diplomatic corps, Hessel was sent to the United Nations, where he joined Eleanor Roosevelt's committee and helped shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He subsequently served as an advisor to Pierre Mendès-France, the French prime minister who both won and lost office in the mid-1950s because of his insistence on speaking truthfully to his country.

As his memoir's title declares, Hessel had until then "danced with the century." But after he retired as a diplomat, Hessel began to lead the dance. In the mid-1990s, he became the official mediator between the French government and several hundred African sans-papiers (undocumented aliens) who had barricaded themselves in a Paris church to resist deportation. A surprise police sweep of the church, followed by the protestors' arrest and deportation, outraged Hessel.

"Being myself an immigrant," he declared, "I cannot help but take an interest in other immigrants."

No less important, this conviction, which subsequently led him to speak forcefully on behalf of the Roma in France and (to the great displeasure of many French Jews) of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, was codified in a historical document, known simply as the "Charter," which always remained Hessel's touchstone.

Shortly before Hessel flew across the Channel in 1944 to parachute into France, he learned that the French Resistance published clandestinely a document titled "Program of the Council for National Liberation." In effect, this manifesto, quickly dubbed the "Charter," announced that France's liberation would only start, not end, with the defeat of the Nazis. Resistance, for these men and women, was the first step to revolution.

The CNL had a certain idea of revolution: the struggle begun against the Nazis had to be carried on against oppressive social and political forces entrenched in pre-war France. The Charter led off with grand principles -- "the respect of the human person" and the "absolute equality for all citizens before the law" -- and followed with a list of equally ambitious economic rights: the demand for a "true economic and social democracy," the guarantee that "particular interests obey general interest" and worker participation in the management of companies.

Presented by

Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. He is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook and author of the forthcoming A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Pursuit of Meaning.

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