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Introduction: From Engagé to Indigné: French Cinema and the Crises of Globalization

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 1, 2014 (Issue 133)
pp. 3-12 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0010

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In 2010, two years after the global financial collapse that triggered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the best-selling publication in France was not that year’s Prix Goncourt,Michel Houellebecq’sLa carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory), a novel published by Flammarion, one of Paris’s leading publishing houses. That honor went to Indignez-vous! (Time for Outrage!), a 32-page pamphlet authored by 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, a former hero of the French Resistance, a concentration camp survivor and career diplomat. Hessel’s booklet, issued by Indigène Editions, a small provincial publisher, has since sold over 2 million copies, reaching an estimated 10 million readers in France alone, with millions more flocking worldwide to read him in translations that have now appeared in numerous other languages. Hessel’s cri de coeur urges young people in France, and indeed, the world over, to revive the fighting spirit of the French Resistance to the Nazi Occupation and to rise to the defense of freedom, democracy and social justice, the values for which his generation fought so valiantly. Almost a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the contemporary world’s chief menace is no longer totalitarianism, but rather, the free-wheeling economic system that goes by the name of “globalization,” a force that, for Hessel, is no less pernicious than the autocratic foes he faced in Nazi-occupied France. In its current form, he argues, rather than serving the common good, globalization is subordinating the whole of humankind to its insatiable demand for ever-higher profit margins, leading us, along the way, down a path of collective self-destruction. The grip finance capitalism now has on the world economy is the principal target of Hessel’s ire. But his indignation also derives from the ravaging social effects of a now radically restructured global economy that has engendered a staggering rise in income inequality, endemic joblessness and poverty, the slashing of public expenditures and the unraveling of social safety nets, as well as environmental devastation, mass economic migration and the xenophobic responses incited in the societies affected by these major population shifts.

In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, it is not surprising that Hessel’s indictment of globalization had such a strong resonance in France. The French have long been wary of American-led globalization, and have looked askance at the impact it has had not just on the country’s economy, but on its culture and language as well. Anti-globalization discourses and calls for “démondialisation” (de-globalization), which once emanated from the outer reaches of France’s political spectrum, were already gaining political traction when Hessel’s book found its way to bookstands in late 2010. The truly astonishing aspect of Hessel’s tract was the speed with which it became a global phenomenon, giving its name to the social movement that erupted in Spain in May 2011 (Los Indignados) which, in turn, inspired mass protests that spread to Greece, Israel, Great Britain and the United States, where the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in the shadow of New York’s swaggering financial district. And while it may well be pure coincidence that the Arab Spring began to blossom in Tunisia in December 2010, just two months after Hessel’s pamphlet appeared, it is hard not to see it as yet another expression of the palpable and now pervasive sense that something is very wrong with the way globalization has been pursued over the last 40 years. Hessel clearly tapped into the global Zeitgeist in issuing his clarion call to confront global elites and to hold them accountable for what he deems their catastrophic misrule. His book and the protest movements it inspired have given concrete form to the growing feeling that things ought to be different. It can now be said that globalization and its way of ordering human existence are facing a crisis of economic, and perhaps most acutely, of political credibility.

In The Path to Hope (2012), a follow-up volume written in collaboration with French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, Hessel summarized the pair’s...

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