The French thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy has emerged as the poster boy for the defense of “Europe” against the advance of the nationalist-populist parties so dreaded by the establishment. Yet Lévy’s involvement is more likely than not to turn out as a boon to the nationalists. That’s because, in his long media-saturating career as a Parisian public philosophe, Lévy has been an important shaper of the attitudes that have brought France to its current unhappiness.
A wiser political strategy for the neoliberal Merkelist and Macronist parties would be to downplay their ideological distinctions and present their candidates, however disingenuously, as unexceptional center-left and center-right patriots. Macron has been attempting this, with some success, in his own battle against the gilet jaunes. He now appears on TV with a French national flag prominently at his side, and seeks to woo audiences with flattering patriotic references to France’s “uniqueness.”
But here comes Lévy, organizing a public letter signed by 30 writers and intellectuals throwing down the ideological gauntlet in the coming elections. “The idea of Europe is in peril,” Lévy and his co-signers intone. It is being attacked by “false prophets drunk on resentment and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight.” The European Parliament elections in May, say Lévy and his signatories, “promise to be the most calamitous we have known.” He summons Europeans to “a new battle for civilization.” Urgently they “sound the alarm” against “these arsonists of soul and spirit who want to make a bonfire of our freedoms.” And Lévy isn’t stopping at a mere public letter. He promises a tour of two dozen European cities beginning in March. At 70, he bids to become the continent-wide face of resistance to the Euroskeptic parties.
There is a consistency here that ought to be respected. Bernard-Henri Lévy, or BHL as he is known in France, has been a career-long foe of French nationalism. In L’Ideologie francaise, the 1981 book that cemented his stature as the most telegenic of the French “New Philosophers” and made him a glittering figure in the intello/media world, BHL gave an energetic middlebrow boost to an idea that has become a commonplace trope for every antifa or casseur who wants to stifle free speech at a Western university: everyone you don’t approve of is basically Hitler.
In his book, BHL argued that the French didn’t need to defeat the Nazis in 1940 to fall into fascism, that the precursors to the Vichy regime were already everywhere in French intellectual life. They made up, as his title proclaimed, “The” French ideology. This was a distorted simplification of an argument that had been made by serious historians—disdain for parliamentary democracy, hostility to bourgeois capitalism, anti-Semitism, all infused into Vichy, were hardly German monopolies. But BHL took the argument to its outer limits and beyond, sweeping up virtually any French writer of renown and patriotic sensibility. Maurice Barrès, literary celebrant of a French people formed by common blood and soil—a Vichy precursor. Christian socialist Charles Péguy, also a Vichy precursor. The French communist party is reproached by BHL not for being excessively Stalinist, but for being too French. Every French writer who’s ever extolled the French people became in BHL’s telling a predecessor to national socialism.
As Eric Zémmour concluded in a scathing critique of the work: “love of France, it’s the right and far right; the far right, that’s Vichy; Vichy, that’s the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup; Vel’ d’Hiv, that’s the extermination of the Jews. QED, love of France=extermination of Jews.” The book made a splash and sold well, despite scathing criticism of its oversimplifications by some (like Raymond Aron) who had been friendly to Lévy and was generally favorable towards the New Philosophers as a group. Lévy’s work was a critical opening shot in a cultural war during which the French interior minister could not expel an illegal immigrant without being barraged by bien-pensant human rights activists comparing him to Hitler. This, of course, is the era in which we now live.
BHL’s career did not stop there—he was a vigorous pamphleteer and human rights enthusiast, albeit selectively. Cameras could find him on the barricades of the Maidan or persuading his friend President Nicolas Sarkozy that France must assist the rebels seeking to overthrow Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. Yet not all human rights victims merited BHL’s concern, and some blood and soil nationalisms turned out to be more acceptable than others. Late in life, Levy developed a great attachment to Israel. He is now an apologist for whatever the Israeli government feels like inflicting on Palestinians, in Gaza or elsewhere. As Zémmour puts it, noting the contrast between Lévy’s media interventions in France and Israel, “BHL got in the habit of playing a double role, Zola in Paris and Barrès in Jerusalem.”
So now this aging and very rich philosophe will be a most prominent public face of the campaign to save Europe from the Euroskeptic parties. The election debate in general is likely to be fascinating and without precedent. The right-wing and nationalist parties have, in general, a nuanced view of Europe—their nationalism, such as it is, is directed not against other Europeans, but against mass immigration from beyond Europe’s shores. Their views are roughly those held by Charles de Gaulle: that a Europe of nation states is more likely to sustain and nurture the creative aspects of European civilization than a Europe dominated by bureaucrats who have elevated freedom of movement and universal human rights into an ersatz religion. But much remains much to be worked out in practice.
Another group of European intellectuals, this one seeking to preserve a true Europe in the face of globalization and migration pressures, has released a manifesto of its own. The subtlety and depth it presents are quite a contrast to the statement drafted by BHL and his friends. Robert Merry has discussed it in these pages, though overall it has attracted much less media attention than BHL can summon. Its authors make an argument that resists simple summary, but a key point is that there exists an historic Europe, forged culturally by Christianity and politically by the rise of nation states resistant to centralized empire. This Europe is the only home of the European peoples, and cannot be replaced by a false Europe of an EU with ever expanding powers, mass immigration without assimilation, and a university-based culture dominated by remorse for virtually every aspect of its past.
The authors express their own reservations about populism. But their greater concerns are over the current EU-dominated Europe, which is intent on strangling both nation states and the continent’s achievements of individual and intellectual freedom. Their document is a robust critique of the Europe that BHL is mounting the barricades to defend.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.