[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
His death has been the lead story on the news here today and has been positively burning up my FB news feed, with a torrent of eulogies all day such that I haven’t seen in I don’t know how long. Stéphane Hessel was a good, decent man and did good, exemplary things in his life. And he remained in top mental and physical shape to the very end (I read his Le Monde op-eds with interest over the years and saw him a few times at public talks, plus watched him, in 2006, racing on the street to catch a bus as it had pulled away from the stop; not bad for a man of 89). The best tribute I’ve seen today, on FB at least, is this one by Patrick Weil.
The reason why Hessel was known to the grand public, including the majority of those on FB who are eulogizing him, is, of course, on account of the pamphlet he signed in 2010, Indignez-vous !, which became a mega-best seller, a veritable phénomène de société (if it hadn’t been for this pamphlet the vast majority of those who are singing the praises of Hessel today would have likely never heard of him). At €3 and 13 pages of text, it didn’t exactly put anyone out, either money or time-wise. Just about everyone on the left read the thing and praised it to the heavens. At 93 Hessel became a star and for those young enough to be his great-grandchildren. But at the risk of being a party pooper, I thought the pamphlet was inane and simple-minded, reflecting a sloppy way of thinking that is all too courant on the bien pensant French left. I was mystified that so many people could take it seriously. The passages on the WWII French Resistance were irrelevant to anything happening today and carried no lessons for anything. The pages on Palestine—the only conflict today that apparently aroused Hessel’s indignation—should have been highlighted on the computer screen and deleted. Sent straight to the poubelle. And the expressions of indignation were accompanied by no plan of action. Expressing indignation was an end in itself. I’m sorry but the pamphlet was worthless. Fortunately there was some push back on the op-ed pages at the time, by Pierre Assouline, Luc Ferry, and others. And in English, Christopher Caldwell had a good takedown.
But like I said, Monsieur Hessel was a good man and whose heart was in the right place. R.I.P.
UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand had a good commentary this morning on Stéphane Hessel and his Indignez-vous ! (February 28)
2nd UPDATE: Haaretz has an obituary of Hessel here.
3rd UPDATE: Blogger Bernard Girard, in commenting on the legacy of Hessel’s pamphlet, asks what remains of it. Answer: not much.