Bernard-Henri Lévy: A very political pin-up

Bernard-Henri Lévy is France's most famous philosopher. His thoughts on Islam are controversial, his world view apocalyptic. So why, asks Johann Hari, are the British so obsessed with his looks?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bernard-Henri Lévy's right nipple is small, hairless and hardening. He is leaning back, sipping black coffee and telling me about Jean-Paul Sartre. His shirt is open - as ever - to the navel. This is one of the details that British interviewers always fixate on when they talk to BHL (as he is universally known in France). The second is his hair: flowing, Gallic and quite possibly permed, it prompted one French newspaper to run his picture under the headline, "God is Dead but My Hair is Great." The third is his wife: Arielle Dombasle, a French singer who appeared in Miami Vice and has "the smallest waist in Paris".

I resolve to ignore all this. This man is a philosopher, and a damned important one. He is not a nipple, a haircut and a wife. The fact that our journalists fixate on this "nonsense" is a sign of "your anti-intellectual culture" BHL says, and I can't disagree. "It happens sometimes in France, but less. I am surprised by it sometimes," he adds.

But Bernard, Bernard, you don't understand. To us you are a tropical creature. We don't have intellectuals-as-celebrities. More than 300 paparazzi staked out BHL's last wedding; I doubt Roger Scruton's next marriage would be featured in Heat magazine. "But you have Salman Rushdie," he says. Yes, and he had to receive a fatwa to make it on to the front pages. "You have Martin Amis," he says, with less confidence. Yes, but we torture him. It's the upper-middle-class equivalent of a game of football. "Perhaps it is because you did not have a revolution. Intellectuals have never rebuilt your country. They have always been incidental," he says, with a weary shaking of the head.

If you strip away the tinsel, if you resolve to ignore the distractions, and if you allow for the culture shock, BHL has an important message. One year ago he published a book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, which warned that elements within Pakistan's secret services were linked to al-Qa'ida, were flogging nuclear secrets to the highest bidder, and murdered The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl for stumbling across these facts. Lévy was ridiculed - but over the past few months, it has emerged that the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has indeed been doing exactly that. "Now we know. The secrets were sold to Libya, North Korea and Iran." BHL is triumphant.

"There are some men in Pakistan's nuclear lobby, like Khan, who think their duty is to disseminate nuclear weapons in the direction of the Umma [the wider Muslim community]," he concluded on his year-long journey into Pakistan's underworld. "Look: Bin Laden in his first interview after September 11, given to a Pakistani journalist called Hamid Mir, said that his next step was to build a dirty bomb. This will be the next step. He is working on it today. It is very difficult to trade real nuclear devices, or to build a real bomb. We are at the very beginning of the process. But we must admit this is a very serious danger.

"The fight of my life, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been in favour of moderate Islam against the Islamists [BHL's term for Islamic fundamentalism]," he says, leaning forward. "I fought and campaigned for intervention in Bosnia, because the Muslims of Bosnia are the embodiment of the Islam of Enlightenment, and they were being slaughtered. I campaigned for France to support the great Ahmed Shah Massoud." (Massoud was a heroic, anti-Taliban Afghan democrat, known as the "Lion of Panjshir". On 9 September 2001, al-Qa'ida suicide bombers murdered him.)

"I went to see him many times. He was my friend. Massoud, to me, was the embodiment of moderate Islam. And I have supported the Chechen resistance, which contains many people who are the embodiment of moderate Islam. For me, to stand by the side of moderate Muslims today is as important as to stand beside the dissidents of the Soviet Union. This is the fight of our day. I supported these people not just with my mind, but with my feet. I went and saw their struggles. I try to tell the world about them."

Is this a Second Cold War? "Analogies must be done carefully," he says, after a pause. "One of the big differences is that inside the Communist world, you had very few dissidents. They were a very small minority. Today, fortunately, thank God, you have a really big minority - and sometimes a majority - of women and men who know that Islamism is their main enemy. These are the people we must support. They are not a tiny minority. They are a huge crowd in many of these countries. This is what we do not acknowledge enough. There is a blindness following September 11. Of course, the 3,000 people killed on September 11 was terrible, but the main victims of Islamism are Muslims themselves. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by them in the last few decades: Algerian Muslims, Afghan Muslims, Pakistani Muslims. These are the victims. They are our allies."

The philosopher made his name as a 25-year-old by writing a savage work of polemic, Barbarism with a Human Face, ripping into the French left for failing to see that Communism was the most cruel and dangerous threat to human rights on earth at that time. No less a figure than Sartre accused him of being a CIA agent. BHL now sees some parallels with the French left's failure to see the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. "You have today in some parts of the French left - only some parts - the belief that Islamic fundamentalism is a legitimate expression of the revolt of the poor, of the disillusioned. They think that Islamism can be embraced and put in the service of the left. This is a terrible mistake."

But is it just the far left that is badly misjudging this battle? The most powerful Western nations, whether they're led by politicians from the centre left or the centre right, "are not on the right course today either. Your country and mine supported the Taliban against Massoud. We supported the Serbian-Christian fascism against moderate Muslims for too long. We support Saudi Arabia, which is the origin of all the money for these anti-Western groups. We supported Pakistan with no conditions at all until very recently. I will never forget Massoud coming to France and the doors being closed in front of him. [Jacques] Chirac - and [Lionel] Jospin, too - treated him like a dog."

BHL could not support the recent Iraq War because he believes it was going after the wrong target. "Saddam Hussein was a monster and overthrowing a dictator is always good, but are we sure he was the right target? Was he a danger? I think it was a great error."

BHL defines himself as an "anti-anti-American". He says: "I am not pro-American like a blind man. There were a lot of things, even before the Iraqi war, that I hated about Bush. George Bush is a serial killer. To execute 152 people [when he was Governor of Texas], this is disgusting to me. But I hate also - perhaps even more - the criticism of America not as a part of the world but as a territory of the mind. We know this well in France. We have a strong tradition of anti-Americanism on the extreme right. In the 1930s, for example, hatred of America in France went with hatred of Jews. It was a hatred of jazz and black people, hatred of a country that mixed races."

Lévy is not a man afraid of blowing his own trumpet; in fact, it is permanently affixed to his lips so that he can blow it every other sentence. In one immodest moment, he says: "I predicted 20 years ago what is happening today in France. I predicted it. The rise of the extreme right, the extreme right moving to the centre of France's political spectrum, the clash with the extreme left." He is entitled to a degree of self-congratulation, however, despite the crassness of his bragging. He did indeed outline all this in his 1983 book L'Idéologie Française, which said that France has a natural propensity to polarisation and extreme politics.

In BHL's analysis, Jean Marie Le Pen is not a temporary blip, an aberration caused by an odd electoral system and a divided left. "No, the aberration in France was the 30 years of Gaullism. General de Gaulle created the illusion of the resistant France, united and coherent. He placed a veil over the deep current of extreme right thought that has been the inescapable reality of France for 150 years." Charles de Gaulle - the iconic war leader who assumed the presidency in 1958 and crafted the Fifth Republic in his own image - created an artificial glue to hold France together, BHL argues. Now, Gaullism is dissolving and the natural currents of French politics are returning.

"You must understand: France is not England. It is not America. We are different," he elaborates. "Karl Marx said that Germany was the country of philosophy, England the country of economics, and France the country of politics. He was right. Being the country of politics means being the country of extreme clashes, of radicalism on left and right. Our extreme left and extreme right aren't marginal, like here [in the UK]. I know you have Tariq Ali and the British National Party in England, but they do not mean anything, they are very marginal. In France they are huge. Millions vote for people like them in our elections."

Despite having little political sympathy for him, Chirac appointed BHL as his personal ambassador to Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, prompting much amused comment that, while the Americans prepared to send bombs, the French sent a philosopher. Today, BHL still believes that the war against the Taliban was absolutely justified, but he is not optimistic that its achievements will be secured for the future. "I can only say that the game is not over. You have the plan of [Hamid] Karzai, a moderate, open-minded, modern, democratic Muslim, and then you have the Islam of the warlords and the Taliban. Somebody must prevail. Will we make sure it is the right side?"

To understand BHL's soaring global vision, you have to flash back to 1968, when the streets of Paris reeked of tear gas and testosterone, and barricades were being built next to the Bastille. There has long been controversy about BHL's own role in the student semi-revolution. Some critics sneer that he watched it in front of his television with a map of Paris in his lap. Yet today he says he "absolutely" remains a child of 1968. "Les événements de Mai [as the revolt is known in France] made me. It was about the spirit of freedom, the taste of revolt, the refusal of all authority. I am still for all of this. I am a human rights activist in fidelity to 1968."

Yet at that time he was flirting with Maoism, the most murderous ideology of the 20th century (with a death count of more than 30 million). Do you regret it, BHL? "No, of course not," he says, surprised. "It was a dead end, but I do not regret going through it. I would do it again. Apologising for crimes, that was awful. But I might not be the radical anti-totalitarian I am today if I had not gone through that. You cannot cut into the biography of a mind."

And then BHL's wife staggers into the hotel bar, so laden about with Prada bags that she looks like an especially glamorous pack-camel. She kisses her husband and pouts in my direction. The nipple, I notice curiously, has softened. Suddenly the intellectual BHL is gone, my resolve has cracked, and I am seeing the trivia again.

My failure is revealing, less of my shortcomings, perhaps, than of the cheesy contradictions at the heart of BHL. His ideas are electric, yet for every three important comments he makes, he disappoints me by uttering one crashingly embarrassing idiocy. Why did he say recently: "What writer can deny that the reason he writes is to seduce women?" Why has he described himself as "a mobile Vatican of ideas, dispensing indulgences"? Why does his wife publicly compare him to Jesus Christ? Why does he always use a grotesque, hyperbolic, insanely overwritten prose style? And why are there so many sloppy factual errors in his books? He seems almost to cultivate the absurd image of a revolutionary waving a Christian Dior flag.

And yet, and yet... on so many issues, BHL has been right, way ahead of his countrymen. Who else in Paris (or London or New York, for that matter) was seeking out and lavishing cash on Afghan and Chechen democrats throughout the Nineties? When we have forgotten all the excesses, when his wife is confined to fuzzy late-night TV re-runs, we may remember BHL as a prophet of the great battle of the 21st century. But for now, I can't get that self-consciously displayed nipple out of my head.

Bernard-Henri Lévy appeared at Jewish Book Week (