Jean-François Revel

Polemicist of wit and passion who defended Western democracy and attacked French anti-Americanism
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The Independent Online

Jean-François Ricard (Jean-François Revel), writer, polemicist and political commentator: born Marseilles, France 19 January 1924; married first Yahne Le Toumelin (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second 1966 Claude Sarraute (one son); died Kremlin-Bicêtre, France 30 April 2006.

Jean-François Revel was over the last 40 years the best- selling author of a number of books attacking French anti-Americanism and defending liberal democracy. From the 1960s onwards, he worked as a journalist for each of France's three leading political weeklies in turn, and also held the post of editor at some of Paris's most influential publishing houses. As a political commentator, he broadcast frequently on the radio, and nine years ago became one of the so-called "immortals" of the Académie française.

He was born Jean-François Ricard in Marseilles in 1924, was educated by Jesuits and was in Lyons, preparing for entry into the Ecole normale supérieure, when the Second World War broke out. It was in the Resistance that he adopted the surname Revel under which he would subsequently publish some 30 works. Revel graduated from the ENS in 1943 and having been briefly influenced by the teachings of George Gurdjieff, whom he soon dismissed as a fraud and a crook, then worked as a teacher in Algeria, Mexico, Italy and France.

In 1957, he published the first of his many polemics, Pourquoi des philosophes? ("What Are Philosophers For?"), in which he attacked the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the jargon that prevailed in philosophy departments in French universities.

Six years later, Revel gave up teaching to devote himself to a new career as a writer and journalist, as well as working as an editor for various publishers including Julliard and Robert Laffont. In the mid-Sixties he was responsible for launching "Libertés", an iconic series of short texts, published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, that included works by André Breton, Julien Benda, Leon Trotsky and Henri Alleg.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Revel considered himself to be a man of the (moderate) left. In 1959, for example, he attacked the political, literary and oratorical pretensions of Charles de Gaulle in Le Style du Général ("The General's Style"); in 1960 he was appointed chief literary editor of the left-wing France Observateur, precursor to Le Nouvel Observateur; he was a speech-writer for François Mitterrand, the left's presidential candidate in 1965, and in the legislative elections of 1967 he stood, unsuccessfully, as a candidate for Mitterrand's reformist-left Fédération de la gauche démocratique et socialiste (FGDS).

Repelled by what he saw as the dangerous antics of the soixante-huitards, disillusioned by the defeat of the left in the 1969 elections and opposed to the rapprochement of the French socialists and Communists, Revel began to distance himself from the left. In particular he opposed the left's traditional anti-Americanism which he pitilessly dissected in Ni Marx ni Jésus (1970, translated as Without Marx or Jesus, 1971), written after the first of many visits to the United States. Although the book became a best-seller both in France and in the US, it received a mauling at the hands of European reviewers.

Other best-sellers followed, notably, La Tentation totalitaire (1976; The Totalitarian Temptation, 1977), Comment les démocraties finissent (1983; How Democracies Perish, 1984), Le Terrorisme contre la démocratie ( "Terrorism Against Democracy", 1987), and L'Obsession antiaméricaine (2002; Anti-Americanism, 2003), in which Ravel deployed wit, reason and passion to defend Western democracy, oppose totalitarianism and continue his campaign against what he saw as the gross misrepresentation of the US and its role in the world.

In 1966, Revel had joined the weekly magazine L'Express. In 1978, the year after the publication was acquired by Sir James Goldsmith, Revel was appointed directeur and he remained in this position until 1981 when Goldsmith sacked the magazine's chief editor, Olivier Todd. Revel resigned in protest and joined the rival weekly Le Point, where he remained until his death. He also made frequent appearances as a commentator on radio, notably Europe 1 and RTL.

Towards the end of his life, Revel took up cudgels against the anti-globalisation movement, which he saw as the latest manifestation of anti-Americanism. According to him, behind this movement, whose supporters he described as undemocratic, violent, incoherent false prophets, lay an older and more fundamental struggle - the one against economic liberalisation, and its chief representative, the US. "The new movement," he wrote, "taps into an old socialist tradition, where opposition to economic freedom and opposition to America are impossible to separate."

But Revel was not just a polemicist. He was also a gourmet and a bon vivant whose eclectic oeuvre included a literary history of food from antiquity to the present day, a three-volume history of Western thought from Thales to Kant, a collection of existentialist and Marxist critiques of the writings of Marcel Proust and anthologies of French poetry. In June 1997 he was elected to the Académie française.

It was also in 1997 that Revel published his memoirs, Le Voleur dans la maison vide ("Thief in an Empty House"). Despite asserting that he had always loathed the family, both the one he was born into and the ones he had created, in the same year he published Le Moine et le philosophe (1997; The Monk and the Philosopher, 1998), a book-length dialogue between Revel, the convinced atheist, and his son Mathieu Ricard, who had abandoned a potentially brilliant career in molecular biology research to go to live in Asia, to study Buddhism, and who subsequently became a Buddhist monk.

David Drake