6 DECEMBER 2008, Page 16

‘They treat me more like a devil than a god’

Lloyd Evans finds that Bernard-Henri Lévy is not the ageing French dandy of caricature but a serious intellectual with views on everything from Barack Obama to the Muslim veil Oh goody. He’s late. Every journalist wants the interviewee to miss the appointment, if possible by several hours. It gives us the advantage and obliges our subject to apologise or face being lacerated in print for the transgression. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy arrives 35 minutes after the agreed time and greets me with a disarming combination of lightly salted regret and a plausible excuse. In France, Lévy is so famous that he’s known by the simple acronym BHL, like a furniture superstore or a killer virus. He has an enormous personal fortune, a glamorous movie-star wife and a continent-hopping lifestyle and, at 60, he enjoys the sort of Beckhamesque levels of celebrity no British intellectual could hope for. Even in London, he’s a superstar, over here this time for a sold-out ‘Evening with Bernard-Henri Lévy’ hosted by Intelligence Squared.

So I was expecting someone flamboyant and faintly absurd, an ageing dandy with dyed hair and crumbling good looks and a shirt (the shirt is BHL’s sartorial trademark) ripped open to the waist to reveal a chest bronzed by the African sun at his Moroccan hideaway. Instead I’m shaking hands with a lean, middle-aged intellectual with a decent but not spectacular head of hair, dark energetic looks and a shirt which is indeed open but whose shy cleft reveals a very modest acreage of flesh. There’s one David Hasselhoff touch. He’s wearing sunglasses and we’re indoors, but he whips them off straightaway and sits opposite me with such an air of concentrated gravity that I feel faintly ashamed that I’d planned to open by asking if he really said, ‘God is dead but my hair is perfect.’ No, no, that’s the wrong approach. This guy is smart, serious and sincere, so instead I ask about the credit crunch. He answers in fluent, thickly accented English. ‘It is a cancer with metastasis. Or a golem, as we say in the Jewish tradition, a self-animated monster which is out of control. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s happening. The only thing we see for certain is the fear in the bankers’ eyes.’ Lévy doesn’t follow British politics too closely but he seems to have swallowed Gordon Brown’s salvationist rhetoric and praises him for ‘solving the threat of bankruptcy worldwide. He invented the concept which Sarkozy and others applied. To involve the state in the financial system directly is contrary to the dominant ideology, contrary to Brown’s previ ous beliefs too. That’s really brave, really courageous.’ Brown, he says, hasn’t exhausted his bravery yet. ‘The next courageous step for Mr Brown is to raise taxes.’ I ask about Obama, whom he’s met several times. He was impressed by ‘his brilliance, his charisma and his strength’ (strength is a favourite word of Lévy’s). ‘He is a strange mixture. In one body, the soul of Kennedy and Martin Luther King.’ Unlike some commentators, he isn’t concerned that America will expect too much of Obama. ‘The Americans are pragmatic,’ he says, quick to correct any hint of anti-American sentiment. ‘They are glad for what he is. They don’t look at him as the Messiah.’ He predicts that Israel–Palestine will be Obama’s priority in foreign policy, as well as ‘the eye of the cyclone’ in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. From what he has read he believes Obama will boost troop numbers in Afghanistan by reducing America’s deployment in Iraq. ‘It was crazy at this level.’ But he’s less preoccupied by the Middle East’s future than by the recent past in the former Soviet empire. August’s crisis in Georgia troubled him deeply. The West, he says, made ‘a serious miscalculation about the real nature of Putin’s regime. You’re a fool if you believe Putin will allow any reduction to Russia proper.’ The dream of Russia’s leadership is to revive the westward influence it wielded during the Soviet era. ‘Putin is clearly after a new Yalta. Not a division of Europe, but a “soft Yalta”. In the next ten years the military balance of power in this region will be at stake. You have America and Europe on the one hand and Russia on the other. The territories at issue will be Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic countries and, alas, probably Poland again.’ Is he anxious about a new Cold War? ‘I am anxious by definition.’ Aside from the credit crunch and the chess game of geopolitics, he is exercised by ‘the crisis of values’ facing the world. In his latest book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House), he argues that Western liberals, ‘the false left’, have turned tolerance into a dangerous fetish. Tolerance is something he has always mistrusted. ‘It implies a sense of superiority. “I don’t like you but I tolerate you. You disgust me but I put up with you.”’ He has a particular antipathy to the veil in Muslim culture and the West’s acquiescence in a mechanism of division and oppression. ‘Putting the veil on women means they are not like men. We are faces, we are bodies. They are not. They are “provocative elements” which have to be neutralised and hidden. By their very being they are “a disorder” which must be controlled.’ I point out that Muslim women don’t feel compelled to wear the veil but do so as an expression of individual liberty. Nodding rapidly, he admits that self-imposed slavery isn’t exclusively Islamic and refers me to Etienne de la Boétie’s Discours sur la servitude volontaire, published in 1548. It’s a very basic question, he says. ‘Humanity is a face. And I believe that without the veil the Muslim world could absolutely be faithful to its poetry, to its beauty, to the best of its traditions.’ Humanity is a face. Lévy has a knack for inventing phrases that cram a lot of intellectual distance into a short verbal leap. This makes him appealing to the media and, along with his racy looks and opulent lifestyle, accounts for his enormous celebrity in France. ‘They treat you like a god,’ I say. ‘More a devil than a god,’ he adds shrewdly, before I can write down, ‘Doesn’t demur when I call him a god.’ Is fame something he enjoys? ‘Enjoy is not the word. I don’t care for it much. Sometimes it is as if they spoke of someone other than myself. What I enjoy, what I want, is publicity for the causes I defend.’ His political activism sets him at variance with the image of the philosopher as a detached and solitary metaphysician. ‘You aren’t someone who sits in a dark room and just thinks.’ He bats the phrase back at me. ‘I don’t sit in a dark room. I stand in a dark world.’ To finish, I pose the obligatory ‘NUJ training’ query. ‘Is there anything else I should ask you?’ He seems moderately horrified at the thought of putting a question into my mouth. ‘Please, no. How can I permit myself this?’ he says with a show of humility which, in characteristic French fashion, seems to have descended from a great height. Finally, I muster the courage to put the ‘perfect hair’ quote to him. ‘Crazy,’ he says. ‘It’s not my humour. I can be much more funny about myself than that.’ But before I can ask for an example he whips his shades back on and melts into the darkness.