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

More prosaically, the Charter also called for health insurance, retirement pensions and the establishment of fair wages. All in all, the CNL made the short-lived Provisional Government under Charles de Gaulle an offer it could not refuse: the experience of occupation and liberation had been necessary to bring forth a society that would insure all of its citizens against illness and support them in old age. These are the very same droits acquis, or legal rights, which the European Union's austerity measures now appear to threaten not just in France, but most of Europe.

In 2004, Hessel, joined in an open letter with a dozen other elderly dignitaries of the Resistance. They urged France's youth to maintain the Charter's spirit, called for a "peaceful insurrection" against a world of "mass consumption" and "brutal competition that pits all against all," and warned against "the international dictatorship of financial markets." As these astonishing men and women passed away one by one, they left Hessel standing alone. In the time left to him he wrote Indignez-vous-- a reiteration, in effect, of the Charter.

"How lucky I am," he declared, "to be able to draw on the foundation of my political life: the Resistance and the National Council of the Resistance's program."

Hessel affirmed that if we "are to be the true heirs of the Charter," we would oppose the neo-liberal policies that are undermining the welfare state and the nationalist passions aimed at immigrants. Just as indignation heaved the Resistance into being, so too must indignation drive today's youth to resist these bleak trends.

Since the pamphlet's release in late 2010, it has sold well over two million copies in France. Beyond France, more than a million copies of the work, translated into nearly three-dozen languages, have been sold, transforming Hessel into a global celebrity. But will Hessel's legacy help shape the turmoil that is now seizing European politics?

It is not at all clear. Claimed as their spiritual mentor by the indignés of France, indignados of Spain, indigneti of Italy, the indies of our own Occupy movement in the US, Hessel nevertheless recognized the problem of building upon sheer indignation. Indeed, the waning (and occasional turn to violence) of the Occupy movements here and abroad suggests the problem is even greater than Hessel wished to believe. More ominously, there is the startling surge of populist movements riding the growing swells of popular outrage across the continent. There are, to be sure, important differences in the agendas and leadership of Syriza (not to mention the neo-fascist New Dawn) in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the Front de gauche (and, yes, the extreme right wing National Front) in France, but they all share two qualities that would have appalled Hessel.

First, all of these are at heart nationalist movements that at best are wary of, and at worst deeply hostile to "Europe." Their collective reflex is to turn away from transnational institutions, which they decry for blurring national identities and frontiers; and many of them, even those on the left, embrace a politics tinged with xenophobia. (For example, Grillo's Five Star Movement wants to deny citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy.)

Second, nearly all the leaders of these movements are singularly incapable of dialogue. Far from dancing with their century, they instead seem determined to lash it to their narrow agendas. As France and the world prepare to honor Hessel's memory --he will be buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris--he would want us to recall his belief that resistance must always be an act of creation. We will see if this moral axiom has much of a future in Europe.

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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