The 61-year-old son of a Jewish millionaire who built up a timber company from nothing, Bernard-Henri Lévy shot to the forefront of French intellectual life in the early 1970s as founder of the anti-Marxist New Philosophy Movement. He was one of the first French intellectuals to call for intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s and drew the world’s attention to Serbian concentration camps. More recently he helped found the Institute for Levinassian Studies in Jerusalem and Paris and was one of the first to call for an end to the genocide in Darfur.
Monocle: You have travelled widely to expose suffering and injustice. Why?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Since the time of the Greeks, philosophy was practised in the street not in the office. Some believe that you can find this street in Saint Germain des Prés. Others believe that the street is a planetary one. I think the work of an intellectual is to go and see what no one else has. I think a writer or intellectual is never as much himself as when he tries to bear witness to what the world has organised itself to ignore.
M: Is that why you decided to visit Gaza after the recent conflict?
BHL: All the news bulletins I saw were utterly one-sided, causing a great deal of hysteria in France and Europe. I wanted to go and see for myself what was going on. It confirmed what I already knew; that wars are disgusting. What I saw of the Israeli army was a very different picture to the band of hardened old soldiers targeting civilians, shooting at women and children for fun, depicted by the press.
M: In 1981 you were in Afghanistan during the ultimately unsuccessful Soviet invasion. Do you think the Americans and their allies are fighting a similarly losing battle?
BHL: I was just as much in favour of intervention in Afghanistan seven years ago against al-Qaeda and the Taliban as I was opposed to the war in Iraq. Today the Taliban have already regained power in parts of the country. We cannot let a situation like this continue. The Taliban practises a form of fascism, which needs to be defeated. The question is how can we help the Afghans combat the Taliban? I went to Afghanistan in 2002 at the request of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. I don’t think we’ve done much in seven years. Anglo-Franco and US special forces have been hunting down Taliban leaders in the mountain regions of Tora Bora but the real work of nation building and developing a democracy hasn’t been done.
M: Looking across the Afghan border, you describe Pakistan as “the biggest rogue state of all rogue states”. What do you think the international community should be doing to regulate this rogue state?
BHL: What the international community can do is review the terms of its alliance with Pakistan. There should not be unconditional support for Pakistan. There are three conditions in my mind: first there has to be a hunt for al-Qaeda leaders not just in the tribal zones but also in Pakistan’s major cities; secondly, Pakistan has to share control of its nuclear arsenal with its western allies and thirdly, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has to show that it is prepared to reform by purging itself of any employees sympathising with radical Islam. Pakistan’s big problem is that the secret services, which behave like a state within a state, are corrupted by Islamist groups.
M: But what’s the best way to fight Islamic fundamentalism?
BHL: Islamic fundamentalism is not a question of religion; it’s a political question. It’s not such a grave problem if people give the Koran a fundamentalist reading but if that impacts on laws politicians make or the behaviour of citizens then it becomes a political problem.
M: So can intervention work? What about in Darfur?
BHL: People should not be held responsible for the deviations of their leaders. We had to defend the Germans against Nazism and the people of Central Europe against communism; we have to defend Africa against those who say let the terrorists in Khartoum clean up Darfur. It’s every democrat’s duty to point this out.
M: Looking at your president, Sarkozy has begun to reduce the number of French troops in former African colonies such as Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda. Is Africa a place Sarkozy doesn’t want to get mixed up in?
BHL: Africa is a black hole for the whole world, not just Sarkozy – apart from the Chinese who are pillaging it like the colonial empires did before them. Whether it’s from pillage or simple disinterest Africa has become the most disinherited continent in the world.
M: In your most recent book “Public Enemies”, you accuse Sarkozy of having run an election campaign founded on French people’s insecurities. How would you contrast this approach with Barack Obama’s?
BHL: One of the reasons Obama won the American election was because of his extraordinary positivity and optimism. From that point of view his approach was the complete opposite of Sarkozy’s.
M: Is this lack of positivity the reason why you live in New York for much of the time?
BHL: No. I voted against Sarkozy and for [former Socialist Party candidate] Ségolène Royal, but Sarkozy is not the devil. If I spend a lot of time in the US it’s because I like being there. The kind of radical intellectual debate I’m interested in is richer in America than it is in Europe at the moment.
CV: Bernard-Henri Lévy
1948: Born in Beni-Saf, northwestern Algeria, but is brought up in Paris.
1968: Enrols in Paris’s École Normale Supérieure and gains a degree in philosophy.
1977: Publishes “Barbarism With A Human Face”. This is his first book to be translated into English, in which he launches a blistering attack on Marxism.
2005: Becomes well known in the US for his book, “American Vertigo”, in which he is chauffeur-driven across America in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville.
2008: Publishes “Left in Dark Times”, attacking the European Left for being soft on Islamofascism – opening the way for future anti-Semitism, and virulently anti-American feeling.