On the Road With Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Planet’s Last Superstar French Intellectual
From Paris to Benghazi to Dhaka to Kiev, France’s most prominent, and tireless, public philosopher is also its de facto statesman
Dombasle greeted me in their dining room and, making my day, complimented my suit as “très élégant.” Extending her smartphone with her thin elongated arm, she corralled me and BHL into a picture along with a mysterious bespectacled person named Françoise. She and Françoise then promptly disappeared, dematerializing as if by teleportation. In the movie-star fashion, the family life is both publicly exposed and carefully protected. In interview after interview, this man renowned for his self-promotion insists that the “right to privacy is one of the highest, most sacred of rights.” That discretion, as well as a talent for misdirection, reveals a capacity for psychological and administrative compartmentalization of the various strands of a complex and manically busy life.
Spending any length of time with BHL, one will become cognizant of the many contradictions that shape both his private life and his public persona. His outraged sense of justice is intertwined with a brazen pursuit of an 18th-century-style world-historical greatness. Like Benjamin Disraeli, BHL is a self-fashioned Sephardic Jew who observed and masterfully replicated the manifold idiosyncrasies of the locals and climbed to the top of the greasy pole by dint of dogmatic tenacity. Like Disraeli, he had to contend with the conflicted relationship to Jews of the native ruling class, which despite its prejudices gives disproportionate power and prestige to intellectuals. Also, much like Disraeli, he accomplished everything despite the liability of an unconventional wardrobe.
An arch-romantic in the classical style, BHL is also a political operator who alternates macho bravado with delicate manners. Flitting between war zones and five-star hotels, habitually surrounded by material opulence, he is seldom caught sleeping or eating. At 65 years old, when most people are tinkering with their pension plans, he is as kinetic as a man half, even a third, his age. “Retire?” he ripostes when I broach the topic. “I am your age!” Responding to a recent query from a Parisian newspaper about the secret of his perpetual youth, his advice was, “Don’t spend time with boring people.” The unbuttoned white shirt—he tells interviewers that he would choke otherwise—is a form of social provocation that he doubtlessly relishes; it also constitutes a dandyish parlor trick, leading otherwise shrewd judges of character and intellectual talent to underestimate his political acumen and Puritan work habits.
Much of the anti-BHL feeling in France is clearly unabashed envy, while some of it stems from veiled anti-Semitism. It is also undeniably true that over the years his work has traded meticulousness of analysis for floridness of expression and the blunt instrumental exegeses of pure rhetorical power. If no longer the most rigorous, he remains the most widely read intellectual in France, whose stream of political journalism, commentary, and first-person participatory narratives frames and drives national political debate to a degree even his staunchest critics grudgingly acknowledge. If he were not already wealthy by virtue of his inheritance, he would have quickly become so from the sales of his books—most of which remain in print.
Born in Bén Siaf, Algeria, BHL and his family emigrated to Morocco when he was a week old; the Lévys migrated to France soon after. His father joined up and fought the Germans with the Brigades Internationales as part of the French Resistance, founded the timber company Becob, and accumulated one of the largest fortunes in postwar France. At 18 BHL matriculated in the exclusive École Normale Supérieure, which marked him as a “Normalian” and as a member of the ruling elite. He studied philosophy under the tutelage of two other Algerian philosophers: the madly rigorous deconstructionist Jacques Derrida and the rigorously mad Marxist Louis Althusser. He was 20 during the tumultuous events of 1968 but is not known to have been active on the revolutionary barricades.
After a very brief stint teaching philosophy, he traveled to Bangladesh in early 1971 to cover the civil war for Albert Camus’ underground journal Combat. With the commencement of the Pakistani army’s ethnic slaughter, André Malraux had issued a call for international intervention in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) and the formation of a new international brigade of the sort that he had led in the Spanish Civil War. While BHL was only one among a hundred volunteers who signed up, he may be the only one to have actually made the trek. (A Pakistani journalist’s hagiographic description of BHL’s incursion as a “one-man international brigade” is not incorrect.) The trip turned into a prolonged stay as well as a stint in Bangladesh’s fledgling economics ministry. It would also culminate in BHL’s first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la revolution (Bangladesh: Nationalism in the Revolution—republished in the 1980s as Les Indes Rouges). Published when he was 24, it remains the only contemporary French account of the Bangladeshi civil war and the genocide it engendered. The book remains untranslated into English.
Returning to Paris from Dhaka, he penned three more books in quick succession that together launched his career as a public intellectual. La Barbarie à Visage Humain (Barbarism with a Human Face) was published to wide acclaim when he was 28. The book constituted a fraternal assault on the lingering Leninist-Stalinist tendencies of the old unreconstructed French left. L’Idéologie Française (1981) predicated that the French are hardwired for fascism—and the metastatic resurgence of the French right that took place soon after its publication seemed to prove the insolent young Jewish dandy correct. Not content to tangle with Marxism and the essential ontological spirit of France, he also picked a brawl with God in Le Testament de Dieu (1978). (BHL is an implacably atheist Jew in the “there’s only one God and we don’t believe in him” sense, as well as being a Zionist.) Collectively the three works managed to scandalize the French reading public, regardless of political persuasion. “I have developed a finely tuned antenna for why any given French person dislikes my work,” he told me. “They will say I like all your work except this one and they will name the book. With one phrase I know if the person is a Fascist, religious, or of the old left wing.”
The French ruling class to which BHL belongs is hermetic, cohesive, and centralized in Paris and also—or therefore—exceptionally incestuous. Anyone who indulges the taste for the intrigues of the French intelligentsia will know that before she married Sarkozy to become the first lady, Carla Bruni had broken up the marriage of BHL’s novelist daughter Justine to the son of his close friend, Grasset publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven. In his relations with the French elite, BHL is both an outsider and consummate insider: He has been chairman of the board of the French-German culture television station ARTE for 20 years (like an oriental potentate, he jokes) as well as directing his own magazine La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game). The confluence of politics, culture, journalism, and business relations over which he presides is controversial and unimaginable anywhere outside of France. When I inquired whether he has more or less influence under the socialists—his natural home and fratricidal “family on the left”—he shrugged thoughtfully before replying, “It’s hard to say.” The independence granted by his immense wealth keeps him from lapsing into the role of the court philosopher. His position in the French political firmament is akin to a secular, modern-day variation on the outsize political influence that cerebral churchmen like Cardinal Richelieu or Jean François Paul de Gondi or Cardinal de Retz once wielded over the French throne.
That said, there is also something unmistakably American about the self-fashioned transformation of an immigrant boy from North Africa into a jet-setting playboy-philosopher who advises heads of state on foreign policy. His work has smuggled Anglo-American strains of liberalism into French political thought in the same way that his friend Nicolas Sarkozy’s political swagger brought the American style of brashness to French politics. Novel in a French context, the arch-individualism, swagger, work ethic, frenetic pace, and transparent ambition would all be quite normal in New York City or Washington, D.C. That he is a friend of America and of the postmodernist form of emancipation that it represents against the principled disdain of the unreconstructed old French left is a core driving force of his more recent work. In 2002, he spent a year in Pakistan and wrote a book called Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, about the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by the Taliban. It was followed by American Vertigo, in which he retraced, through post-Sept. 11 America, Tocqueville’s bemused wanderings across the country. His 2008 book Left in Dark Times is a sort of sequel to Barbarism with a Human Face and identified obsessive anti-Americanism (and the corollary hatred of Israel) as the new totalitarian malady infecting Europe. “If you really care, are really interested in the history of ideas,” he told me, “it is not a left-wing position. Historically, hatred of America is a right-wing position. We have a clear imperialism in the case of Russia and with China toward Tibet. Yet there still exists a weak left that thinks America is the real empire. It’s a joke. But unfortunately it’s also not a joke.”
How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself