BEN JUDAH MEETS
June 5 2016, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Bernard-Henri Lévy has a new film and the president of the French Republic has already seen it. This isn’t just a film; in Paris, this is a political intervention. The influence that the French philosopher, known everywhere as “BHL”, can have over the Elysée is hard to exaggerate. Even his fiercest critics tell you that he is regularly texting François Hollande. The film is called Peshmerga — the Kurdish name for their warriors battling the forces of Isis.
The result is not only a breathtaking war film gloriously shot from Lévy’s three-month long journey along the front lines of Isis, but also a hymn to Kurdistan. It is no surprise that Peshmerga was granted a rare late entry to the Cannes film festival where it received outstanding reviews. There are plans to bring it to Britain this summer. Lévy wants the film to wake France up to the Kurdish war on Isis in northern Iraq.
It’s not just the Peshmerga who are fighting fire, however. Problems and pessimism abound on BHL’s home front where Hollande’s government is struggling to maintain its grip on a country sinking deep into the mire of strikes and a rising political far right.
France feels paralysed, as far from being a world power as it has been for centuries, and many fear the far right may win the next presidency
I meet BHL at a plush restaurant and spa just off the Champs-Elysées. He is wearing his trademark open-necked white shirt, tanned chest on show, wavy salt-and-pepper locks and dark, expressive eyebrows.
A glimpse of Peshmerga
Lévy still has huge ambitions for France and indeed Britain. However, as it pours with rain late in the afternoon, with the Seine near overflowing and precious objects being taken to safety from the Louvre, he admits to deep concern about his country. Last week half the trains out of Paris were blocked by strikes. France feels paralysed, as far from being a world power as it has been for centuries, and many are fearing that the far-right Marine Le Pen — polling 28% of the vote — might win the presidency in 2017.
On this Lévy is adamant. “No, I don’t see it as possible to have Marine Le Pen win the presidency,” he says. “But it is true when you add up first all the Islamo-leftist movements on one side, second the deformation that has overtaken French trade unionism and third the Le Penist extreme right — it is true the conjunction of the three could produce unforeseeable events.”
This, he believes, is the real danger for France. Not the far right in itself, but how it might “triangulate” with Islamism and the extreme left to destroy the moderate centre.
He also fears the possibility of Brexit and the effect it could have on London and Paris if Britain attempts to sever itself from the continent. “Brexit is abandonment,” he says. “This is what you have to know: Brexit and the unravelling of Europe is Vladimir Putin’s strategy.”
Meeting BHL is to discover the man behind the myth. He is no egomaniac. He is relaxed and charming and was as interested in my impressions of France’s volatile situation as I was in his. At 67 (up close he looks 10 years younger), BHL is still a dandy, married to the French actress Arielle Dombasle.
As far as French foreign policy is concerned, over the past 30 years he has proved more influential than many of its foreign ministers. Today he is one of his country’s fiercest critics of Putin, campaigning successfully for France to cancel its sale of Mistral warships to Russia.
Like so many French Jews of his generation, BHL was born not in Paris but in provincial French Algeria. His father was an industrialist and BHL has also proved to be an astute businessman: a mixture of inheritance, directorships, book sales and films has made him more than £100m.
His career has been a uniquely French combination of war correspondent, philosopher, plenipotentiary and partisan of French intervention. He first shot to fame as a “new philosopher”, campaigning against the indulgence for Stalinism and Maoism after May 1968 that ruled in the intellectuals’ fashionable Parisian cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Admirers and detractors alike see him as a power player at the crossroads of Paris’s literary, financial and political worlds. This unique position has given Lévy sway over French foreign policy since the 1990s, when his film Bosna! and role as President Jacques Chirac’s special envoy to Bosnia were crucial in swinging France’s power and public behind western intervention to stop years of bloodshed.
In France, a country suffering a deadly wave of anti-semitism — a recent poll showed 74% of Jewish men wearing the traditional skullcap report having been physically assaulted — Lévy is a deeply proud Jew and a source of pride to a frightened community. He is as iconic to France’s Jewishness as Woody Allen is to America’s. His latest book is called The Spirit of Judaism.
How dangerous does he think French anti-semitism is? “There are reasons to worry,” he says. “The France of the Hypercacher [the kosher supermarket where several Jews were killed during the Charlie Hebdo attack] is a France to worry about. But I think the anti-semites at the end of it are feeble — because they are dumb. Because they are stupid. Because the institutions hold despite everything. If anti-semitism is spreading, the opposite is true in political society.”
The peak of Lévy’s influence is often seen as being under President Nicolas Sarkozy (whom he has known for decades but did not vote for) when after initially offering to back the repression of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, he was one of those who convinced the president to support the rebel cause to topple Gadaffi.
“A country’s foreign policy shouldn’t be about its narrow economic interests,” he says. He speaks softly and earnestly, with intense focus.
“My new film Peshmerga is a film against pacifism. I detest war. I see war as the complete degradation of man. But I detest pacifism. All my three films have a target: pacifism — a force that has always made common cause with the worst.”
Lévy has been waging war as a French philosopher on leftists and pacifists such as Jeremy Corbyn for 40 years: “What they are is a mixture of ideological confusion and perversion. Blinded to the challenge of anti-totalitarianism, by the romance of anti-imperialism, they have come to see Saddam’s Iraq, Bashir’s Sudan, Bashar’s Syria as perverted versions of the colonial victims Frantz Fanon wrote about in The Wretched of the Earth. I hate this denial of evil.”
With a weakened Britain and a reduced France only feebly involved in the Middle East, Lévy wants to make them realise what is at stake and rally to the cause of the Kurds. This is his new intervention.
Mixing a cocktail of Coca-Cola and lemon juice, BHL starts to explain why he was moved to exalt what he sees as the glory of the Kurdish war. His own safety depends on it. The Peshmerga’s front line, he says, is the one holding back hundreds more being slaughtered in the streets and concert halls of Paris. “This is our war and theirs,” he says.
What does BHL want France (and Britain) actually to do for the Kurds? He does not hesitate to answer, arguing that Iraq and Syria are “definitively failed states” and that it is time to give up on the Sykes-Picot agreement of 100 years ago. “I am for an independent Kurdish state,” he says. “As Iraq and Syria collapse, Kurdistan is being built. Kurdistan will be a real state in a region of non-states, failed states and states that pretend to be states. A rock of stability.”
What does he think of his old enemy the far left, the Corbynite left, which objects to western intervention in Syria and Iraq? “This left,” he sighs, thinks that a country formerly under a colonial or imperial foot has all rights and cannot be judged by those who in times before were colonisers.” Unless the left recovers its anti-totalitarian positions, BHL believes it will remain “crippled”.
If Corbyn’s Labour is anything to go by, he has a good point.