The Lies of Bernard-Henri Lévy

Doug Ireland

Bernard-Hen­ri Lévy is so ubiq­ui­tous in France’s media that he is uni­ver­sal­ly referred to as BHL. But in Parisian intel­lec­tu­al and jour­nal­is­tic cir­cles he is known by the moniker BHV – the French depart­ment store that sells any­thing and every­thing. BHL had hoped to sell him­self to the Unit­ed States with Amer­i­can Ver­ti­go, in which he trav­els the Unit­ed States in the foot­steps of Toc­queville.” No one is buying.

Amer­i­can Ver­ti­go reminds me of that old movie, If It’s Tues­day, This Must Be Bel­gium, about Amer­i­can tourists hip-hop­ping Europe in great haste. BHL’s account of his light­en­ing-quick stops in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try – chauf­feur and trans­la­tor in tow – is receiv­ing uni­ver­sal­ly bad reviews, espe­cial­ly in the cities he vis­it­ed, whose local news­pa­pers have made a sport out of point­ing out how he got it wrong. Mean­while, the book’s bric-à-brac of dime-store obser­va­tions has been wide­ly ridiculed. In the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Gar­ri­son Keil­lor skew­ered BHL for the grandios­i­ty of a col­lege sopho­more, a stu­dent padding out a term paper,” adding, There’s no rea­son for [the book] to exist in Eng­lish, except as evi­dence that trav­el need not be broad­en­ing.” Enough said.

Two French jour­nal­ists – Nico­las Beau of Le Canard Enchainé and Olivi­er Toscer of Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur–have just pub­lished in Paris Une Impos­ture Fran­caise (A French Imposter), an inquest into how BHL has built his suc­cess. They write:

A philoso­pher who’s nev­er taught the sub­ject in any uni­ver­si­ty, a jour­nal­ist who cre­ates a cock­tail min­gling the true, the pos­si­ble, and the total­ly false, a patch-work film­mak­er, a writer with­out a real lit­er­ary oeu­vre, he is the icon of a media-dri­ven soci­ety in which sim­ple appear­ance weighs more than the sub­stance of things. BHL is thus first and fore­most a great com­mu­ni­ca­tor, the PR man of the only prod­uct he real­ly knows how to sell: himself.

The flaws in BHL’s work have been evi­dent from the begin­ning. His third book, the 1979 Le Tes­ta­ment de Dieu, was shot down in flames by Hel­lenist his­to­ri­an Pierre Vidal-Naquet (a moral leader of the French left) in a famous Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur arti­cle that detailed BHL’s numer­ous errors. To take just two, BHL cit­ed texts he claimed were from the decline of the Roman Empire (fourth cen­tu­ry) which were actu­al­ly from the first cen­tu­ry B.C., and cit­ed Hein­rich Himmler’s depo­si­tion” at the Nurem­burg tri­als, which opened six months after the SS leader’s sui­cide. Inter­viewed 20 years lat­er by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte, the authors of Le B.A. BA du BHL (The ABCs of BHL), Vidal-Naquet said sad­ly, We have passed from the Repub­lic of Let­ters into the non-Repub­lic of Media. I thought I had killed’ BHL. I hadn’t. I con­sid­er that a defeat.”

From the giant pub­lish­ing house of Gras­set – where BHL has been an edi­tor since 1973 – he launched his first media oper­a­tion: the cre­ation of the nou­veaux philosophes,” a band of scrib­blers of whom he was the most vis­i­ble, whose leit­mo­tif was anti-Marx­ism, anti-Com­mu­nism, anti-anti-Amer­i­can­ism, and the embrace of the free mar­ket as guar­an­tor of human well-being. Their books cham­pi­oned monothe­ism and anti-ide­ol­o­gy as the only pos­si­ble response to the moral col­lapse of Com­mu­nism, thus fos­ter­ing depoliti­ciza­tion in the wake of the evap­o­ra­tion of the spir­it of May 1968” and the tri­umph of con­sumer culture.

BHL launched his sec­ond book, Bar­barism with a Human Face, from the plat­form of the high-rat­ed, prime-time lit­er­ary talk show, Apos­tro­phes.” A hand­some dandy, with stu­dious­ly coiffed long hair, and a white shirt care­ful­ly unbut­toned to reveal his tanned chest, BHL caused the TV host’s daugh­ter to tell him after­ward, I have seen Rim­baud on television!”

That unbut­toned white shirt, by the way, is an impor­tant ele­ment of BHL’s TV and pub­lic images and it tells a lot about the man. If you tried it with your own shirt, the col­lar would sag. But BHL’s shirts are spe­cial­ly designed by the famous shirt-mak­er Charvet, with col­lars that with­stand the unbut­ton­ing and nev­er dis­ap­pear under his jack­et. The effect costs some $400 apiece, but BHL is a very rich man. The busi­ness mag­a­zine Cap­i­tal recent­ly named him one of the 100 rich­est peo­ple in France.

Born with a sil­ver cuil­lère in his mouth, BHL inher­it­ed the family’s huge lum­ber busi­ness, Becob. He played a major role in run­ning the com­pa­ny, until it was sold in the ear­ly 90s. The com­pa­ny spe­cial­ized in rare woods from Africa and – as Une Impos­ture Fran­caise reveals – while BHL was run­ning the com­pa­ny, numer­ous inter­na­tion­al bod­ies and a report from the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment denounced it for keep­ing its African work­ers in penu­ri­ous semi-slav­ery, which rather con­tra­dicts BHL’s pre­ten­sions to be an inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an activist.

The book also describes BHL’s shady stock mar­ket spec­u­la­tions, his being ques­tioned by the author­i­ties about insid­er trad­ing and the secret shell com­pa­nies he owns in France, Switzer­land, Eng­land and Amer­i­ca, and his trou­bles with the tax­man over unde­clared rev­enue that led to a rec­om­mend­ed indict­ment. Before it could be exe­cut­ed, the indict­ment was quashed by one of BHL’s new-found con­ser­v­a­tive friends, the then-Min­is­ter of Finances, Nico­las Sarkozy, the ris­ing star of the right. Sarkozy is only one of the many politi­cians BHL has cul­ti­vat­ed, by prais­ing him in print while also com­mis­sion­ing Sarkozy to write a book for Gras­set – a favorite BHL ploy for seduc­ing every­one from TV hosts to lit­er­ary critics.

BHL changes his polit­i­cal alle­giances like one of his shirts. A courtier of Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, BHL sup­port­ed his pres­i­den­cy by help­ing cre­ate SOS Racism, osten­si­bly a civ­il rights group for young Fran­co-Arabs and blacks. Une Impos­ture Fran­caise, how­ev­er, reveals that the group was only a media-dri­ven vote-get­ting mech­a­nism for Mit­ter­rand that was com­plete­ly cre­at­ed by the Elysée Palace (France’s White House). He also helped launch the month­ly mag­a­zine Globe, designed to be a media arm of Mit­teran­di­an pro­pa­gan­da, in which BHL’s col­umn was fea­tured on the front page of every issue.

BHL was reward­ed for these efforts with the chair­man­ship of the gov­ern­ment com­mis­sion that pro­vides sub­si­dies to French cin­e­ma. BHL used this post, which has life-or-death pow­er over French films, to finance his own failed cin­e­mat­ic cre­ations as well as movies star­ring his glitzy tro­phy wife, the actress Arielle Dom­basle. But, when he sensed that Mitterrand’s star was fad­ing, he began cozy­ing up to and pro­mot­ing the con­ser­v­a­tives’ Prime Min­is­ter, Edouard Bal­ladur – and was soon reward­ed with the pres­i­den­cy of the state-owned TV net­work Arté, where he con­tin­ued using tax­pay­ers’ monies to sub­si­dize his own pro­duc­tions, those of his friends and, of course, projects fea­tur­ing Dombasle.

BHL’s fatu­ous intel­lect was on full dis­play in the Feb. 27 issue of The Nation, when he wrote a num­ber of pro­gres­sives need­ed, by their own admis­sion, to wait for Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na before they got indig­nant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of the out­ra­geous pover­ty blight­ing Amer­i­can cities.” BHL had no need to wait for Kat­ri­na; he pre­dict­ed her arrival.

In an inter­view with New York mag­a­zine, BHL claimed his Amer­i­can trip was under three shad­ows … The shad­ow of the war in Iraq, the shad­ow of an elec­tion, and the shad­ow of Kat­ri­na.” When the inter­view­er point­ed out that Kat­ri­na hadn’t struck at the time he wrote the book,” BHL sim­ply pirou­et­ted: The antic­i­pat­ed shad­ow of Kat­ri­na. I was in New Orleans four or five months before Kat­ri­na, and I more or less fore­see what is going to hap­pen.” As BHL likes to say dis­mis­sive­ly when caught in a false­hood, Ah, but the ink dries so fast …”

This incred­i­ble state­ment, how­ev­er, proves the accu­ra­cy of the judg­ment ren­dered on BHL by Mar­i­ane Pearl, wife of the sub­ject of BHL’s last book in Eng­lish, the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry and fac­tu­al­ly non­sen­si­cal Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Says the dis­il­lu­sioned Mrs. Pearl, BHL is a man whose ego destroys his intel­li­gence.” Those are les mots justes.

Doug Ire­land has been writ­ing about pow­er, pol­i­tics and the media since 1977. A for­mer colum­nist for the Vil­lage Voice, the New York Observ­er and the Paris dai­ly Libéra­tion, among oth­ers, his arti­cles have appeared every­where from The Nation to Van­i­ty Fair to POZ. Hes a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRE­LAND.
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