Born on 5 November 1948 in Béni-Saf, Algeria, near Oran, Bernard-Henri Lévy spends his first years in Morocco before moving with his family to France in 1954. He attends the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly near his family’s home. He then spends a year of rigorous preparatory study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris before enrolling in the Ecole Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, where he studies under Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser and flirts with, without actually joining, the Maoist groups that are then drawing many students from the school.
In 1969, he spends a long period in Mexico, producing an essay on “the nationalization of imperialism” that is published the following year in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. In summer 1970 he travels to Israel, which he first visited two years before at the time of the Six Day War. These visits caused him to break with the reflexive anti-Zionism of most of his contemporaries.
From the second visit he produces an essay that appears in the review of the “Committee of the Left for a Negotiated Peace in the Middle East,” led by Clara Halter with the participation of Vladimir Jankélévitch, Jean-Pierre Faye, Jean-François Revel, and others. Entitled “Forms of Zionism in Palestine,” the essay stakes out a position from which Lévy will never deviate: unconditional support for the existence and security of Israel and the absolute necessity, for reasons both political and ethical, for a sovereign Palestinian state.
In 1970, while still a student at the Ecole Normale, Lévy enrolls at Sciences Po in Paris, from which he is expelled mid-year for disciplinary reasons. Under the direction of Michel Serres, he writes his thesis on the theme of “formation and transfer of scientific concepts according to Georges Canguilhem.” During the same period, he works for the daily newspaper Combat, edited by Philippe Tesson, for which he writes in-depth reports on the violence in Northern Ireland and the state of rural France.
In June 1971 he finished eighth in the qualifying examination for teaching positions in philosophy. In September he submittted a proposal for a graduate thesis on “domestic imperialism and colonialism” under the direction of economist and historian Charles Bettelheim (who introduced him to Althusser).
In November of the same year, responding to André Malraux’s appeal for the formation of an international brigade to defend Bangladesh, Lévy leaves for India and then Bangladesh, where he will spend several months, first as a war correspondent for Combat and subsequently as a Bangladeshi civil servant responsible for planning in the new administration of Mujibur Rahman, the new country’s first president. His extended stay in Bangladesh provides the material for his first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la Révolution, which appears in 1973 in the “Cahiers Libres” collection of Editions Maspéro, which was at this time a rallying point for far-left intellectuals. The book was republished in 1985 under the title Les Indes Rouges (Livre de Poche).
Upon his return to France in 1972, Lévy taught at the Lycée de Luzarches in the Paris region and then, for two years, at the University of Strasbourg, where he gives a course in epistemology, and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he lead a seminar on Nietzsche’s politics.
Having broken with far-left ideology, he was asked by François Mitterrand to join an expert group that includes Michel Rocard, Laurent Fabius, Edith Cresson, Pierre Bérégovoy, Jacques Attali, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Kathleen Evin, and Jacques Delors. He remained a member of the group, which was responsible for the question of joint worker-management control, until 1976.
Justine-Juliette Lévy is born to Bernard-Henri Lévy and Isabelle Doutreluigne (d. 2003).