- Associated Press - Thursday, January 6, 2011

PARIS (AP) - A 93-year-old former French Resistance spy who was once tortured by the Nazis says his runaway best-seller is a call to action to protect human rights and combat the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Stephane Hessel has hit a nerve in France with his 32-page book “Indignez-Vous!” that banks on his experiences as a concentration camp survivor and former diplomat to call for a new form of resistance today.

The aim of Hessel’s succinct book is to convince adrift or discouraged young people that they can change society for the better _ even if they feel the world is too controlled by entrenched and financially powerful interests.

The yes-you-can message in the book, whose title translates as “Be Indignant” or “Get Angry,” has tapped France’s penchant for rebellion at a time when a lack of economic opportunities and frustration at the actions of governments is felt by many people worldwide.

“I would like people to be conscious of the fact that things in this society and this age are not going the right way,” Hessel told the Associated Press on Thursday. He spoke in flawless English, while seated in a plush armchair in the living room of his Paris apartment decorated with dark oil paintings and bookshelves.

“They realize this everyday, and they are unhappy, or they are unfortunate, or they find that it should be different _ but they don’t do anything very much about it,” he said. “If you, the citizens of our countries, really take it in hand and act, then these things might still change.”

The book _ really more of a pamphlet _ opens with his age: “93 years old. It’s a little bit the final phase.” He trumpets the values of the French Resistance, and decries the “power of money” in today’s world.

Hessel doesn’t give specific recipes, on purpose. Instead, he wants to revive the mindset that empowered the French Resistance against the Nazis for the present day.

“I am not giving them a meaning, but I am saying: ‘do try to find for you what would be meaning.’”

Still, he admits today’s ills have less clear-cut solutions than the morally more “simple” fights of the 20th century: against the German occupation of France, Stalinism, and imperial colonization, for example.

His book, which came out in October and sells for euro3 ($3.9), has been among the top-selling books in France for several weeks. It’s the No. 1 seller on Amazon’s French site, at Virgin bookstores and in two magazine rankings.

Hessel said an executive of his small publisher is in the United States working on a possible translation deal.

Hessel, a proud Socialist Party member, said his parents _ his father was Jewish _ immigrated to France from Germany “for personal reasons” in 1924. They frequented the Paris avant-garde scene of artists like Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp.

Hessel fled to London to join resistance leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s outfit in 1941, but snuck back into occupied France on an intelligence mission in 1944 where he was arrested by the Gestapo, subjected to the “bathtub” treatment in which his head was dunked under water, and shipped off to Buchenwald concentration camp.

The day before he was to be hanged at Buchenwald, he swapped his identity with another French prisoner who had died of typhus _ thus avoiding the execution.

As a French diplomat after the war, Hessel joined a panel including former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt that wrote up the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ultimately, while Hessel knows his story has appeal, he said he wants the call for people to educate themselves and respond to be the focus _ not the aging man behind that message.

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