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France finds a hero in former Nazi prisoner turned bestselling author

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"I would like people to be conscious of the fact that things in this society and this age are not going the right way," he recently told the Associated Press. The French should summon the spirit of the Conseil National de la Résistance, or the French Resistance. That alliance of Gaul-lists and leftists built contemporary France as a place of dignity, respect for the weak, equality, and civil society.

Hessel is also looking beyond France. He argues that the post-9/11 era has been problematic for the human spirit, in contrast with the previous decade. "We had great conferences: Rio on environment, Beijing on women, Vienna on human rights and the right to development, Copenhagen on social integration.... These conferences implicitly said: There are things to be done! And then in 2001, after the fall of the towers, we have seen the rejection of these initiatives," he told French media.

"He is the last of a dying breed, an enormously charismatic freedom fighter who survived the worst tragedy of the 20th century and did not lose his fighting spirit," says Karim Emile Bitar, an associate fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris.

"Ernest Hemingway once said, 'As you get older, it's harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.' Well, Hessel is now a hero to hundreds of thousands of French men and women of all ages and social stripes," says Mr. Bitar.

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