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February 28, 2006

BERNARD-HENRI LEVY: A French Imposter

Please excuse some typographical oddities in this post, my blogserver is having a nervous breakdown.

Bhl_shirt Bernard-Henri Levy (left) is so well-known in France he is universally referred to as BHL. But in Parisian intellectual and journalistic circles he is also snidely referred to in private as "BHV" -- which happens to be the name of a famous French department store that sells anything and everything.

"A philosopher who's never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre, he is the icon of a media-mad society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things, BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the p.r. man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself." That's the lapidary judgement of two French investigative journalists -- Nicolas Beau of Le Canard Enchaine and Olivier Toscer of Le Nouvel Observateur -- in their superb, just-published inquest into how BHL has built his success, "Une Imposture Francaise."Beau_book_jacket_1 They're right. During the near-decade I spent living in France, my numerous wordsmith friends -- intellectuals, writers, journalists -- all considered BHL an intellectual fraud, a poseur, and a frimeur, or show-off. So did I. Writing in the London Review of Books a little over a year ago, the great Perry Anderson called him "a grotesque" and "this crass booby in France's public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight." A good example can be found in an article Katrina Vanden Heuvel inexplicably commissioned from BHL for the February 27 issue of The Nation, "Letter to the American Left." In his Nation article, BHL wrote -- a propos of the CIA's "special prisons" in Eastern Europe -- "since when does the press excuse citizens from their political duties? Why haven't we heard from more intellectuals like Susan Sontag" on the issue? Sontag, of course, died in 2004, almost a year before the existence of the "special prisons" was made public in the press, and is no longer here to defend herself. Another BHL idiocy in The Nation came when he wrote that "a number of progressives needed, by their own admission, to wait for Hurricane Katrina before they got indignant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of he outrageous poverty blighting American cities." This statement of BHL's is so self-evidently false that it needs no comment.

The flaws in BHL's work were evident from the beginning. His third book, for example, the 1979 Le Testament de Dieu -- which prescribed monotheism as the only possible defender of liberty and democracy -- was shot down in flames by one of Franceâs most respected intellectuals, the historian and world-class Hellenist Pierre Vidal-Naquet (a moral leader of the Pierre_vidal_naquet_1 French left, photo right), in a famous Nouvel Observateur article that detailed the many errors of fact in it. BHL cited texts he claimed were from the decline of the Roman Empire (Fourth century A.D.) which were in reality from the First Century B.C., and cited Heinrich Himmle's "deposition" at the Nuremburg trials (which opened six months after the SS leader's suicide), Bhl_le_baba_book_jacket to take just two examples. Interviewed 20 years later by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte, the authors of Le B.A. BA du BHL (The ABCs of BHL, Editions la Decouverte, Paris, 2004) -- an excellent and meticulous book which documents in detail the flaws in BHL's oh-so-checkered written output -- Vidal-Naquet said sadly, "We have passed from the Republic of Letters into the non-Republic of Media. I thought I had 'killed' BHL. I hadn't. I consider that a defeat.

It was from the giant publishing house of Grasset -- where BHL has been an editor since 1973 -- that he launched his first media operation: the creation of the "nouveaux philosophes," that little band of scribblers whose leitmotif was anti-Marxism, anti-Communism, anti-anti-Americanism, and the embrace of the free market as guarantor of human well-being. In 1977, BHL published three books of the grouplet -- by Andre Glucksmann, Guy Lardreau, and Christian Jambet, before then publishing his own, La Barbarie a Visage Humain (Barbarism With a Human Face). Depoliticization and anti-ideology were the catchwords of the day -- in reaction to the moral collapse of Communism , underscored by the publication of Solshenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, the evaporation of the spirit of May 1968, and the triumph of the consumer culture. anBHL launched his book from the platform of the high-rated, prime-time literary talk show, "Apostrophes." A handsome dandy, with carefully coiffed long hair, and a white shirt carefully unbuttoned to reveal his tanned chest, BHL caused the TV host's daughter to tell him afterward, 'I have seen Rimbaud on television!' (below left, BHL in his 20s). Bhl_in_his_20s BHL's books always sell, because he is omnipresent on the little screen. But little of the so-called "nouvelle philosphie" made any lasting impact on the world of ideas -- for, as the late philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, "I find their ideas null."

BHL THE BUSINESSMAN: By the way, those unbuttoned shirts, an important element of BHL's TV and public image, tell a lot about the man. If you tried it with your own shirt, the collar would sag. But BHL's shirts are specially designed, with collars that withstand the unbuttoning and never disappear under his jacket, by the famous shirt-maker Charvet -- and cost $400 apiece. BHL, you see, is a rich man. Very rich. The French business magazine Capital recently named him one of the 100 richest people in France.

Born with a silver cuillere in his mouth, BHL inherited the family's huge lumber business, Becob, from his father -- indeed, he played a major role in running the company while he was building his reputation as a media star, both before and after his father's Francois_pinault death, until BHL finally sold it to the billionaire godfather of French business tycoons, Francois Pinault (left), in the early 90s. The company specialized in rare woods from black Africa -- and, as "Une Imposture Francaise" reveals for the first time, while BHL was running the company it was the subject of numerous reports by international bodies (and one by the Canadian government) denouncing it for keeping its exploited African workers in penurious semi-slavery, deprived of the basics of human existence, like running water, health care, and education. This crass exploitation of impoverished black Third World residents doesn't exactly square with BHL's carefully self-constructed image as a "humanitarian activist." The Beau and Toscer book also describes in detail BHL's avid stock market speculations, how he's been questioned in investigations of insider trading, and of the secret shell companies he owns in France, Switzerland, England, and even America, and his troubles with the taxman over undeclared revenue. An indictment of BHL recommended by civil service tax investigators was quashed beforeSarkozy_7  it could be executed by the then-Minister of Finances, the rising star of the conservatives, Nicolas Sarkozy (right) -- one of the many politicians BHL has cultivated over the years (by commissioning him -- just co-incidentally with the tax fraud invesigation, of course -- to write a book for Grasset, a favorite BHL ploy for seducing everyone from TV hosts to literary critics. Sarkozy never delivered the book, but kept the advance.)

BHL changes his allegiances to politicians like he changes his Mitterrand_3 shirts. As a courtier of Francois Mitterrand (left), BHL helped create two major supports for the cancer-ridden French president --  SOS Racism, supposedly created as a civil rights organizations for Franco-Arabs and blacks from France's former colonies - but which was, from its inception, created, financed, and designed by the Elysee Palace as a Mitterrandist vote-getting mechanism. So was the monthly magazine Globe, designed and financed by Mitterrand's entourage, which featured BHL's column on the cover of every issue. BHL eventually got his reward for his services to Mitterrand, when he was named to chair the government commission that provides subsidies to French film as an advance Bhl_chirac against future ticket sales. BHL used this powerful post, which had life-or-death power over French films, to finance his own failed cinema creations and movies starring his glitzy trophy wife, the actress-singer Arielle Dombasle (photo right). Arielle_dombasle Balladur When he sensed that Mitterrand's star was fading, BHL began cozying up to the right-wing's then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur (photo left), to whom he'd sought to be introduced by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his wife -- and was soon rewarded for his newfound coziness with the conservatives by being given the presidency of the state-owned TV network Arte, where he continued using the taxpayers' monies to subsidize his own productions, those of his friends and liege-men, and, of course, projects featuring La Dombasle. (above left, BHL sucking up to conservative President Jacques Chirac.)

BHL and "A." (as he always refers to Dombasle in his books) spend a lot of time at the lavish 18th century palace they own in Marrakech, the most sumptuous in the Moroccan city, just a stone's throw from one of King Mohammed VI's residences (the BHL palace was formerly owned by one of the Gettys, the multi-billionaire oil family.) Here they entertain politicians, journalists, press barons, anyone useful to the advancement of the couple, whose jet-set lifestyle is portrayed endlessly in the celebrity press -- for which they frequently pose for layouts in magazines like Paris Match.

"Une Imposture Francaise" also details the dark side of BHL as the prince of networking: how he has used his relations with the likes of the press magnate Jean_luc_lagardere (and arms merchant), the late Jean-Luc Lagardere (right), to assure not only hugely favorable reviews for his intellectually shabby books, but to blackmail editors and journalists into censoring any negative criticism of him. The bold application of carrot and stick, and the mutual log-rolling the French call copinage have made BHL a man many fear to cross. He uses his weekly column in the large weekly Le Point to favor or punish those whose support he needs or whose reputations he wants to destroy. He'll use his considerable influence with the rich and powerful to assure someone a job or a political appointment, or to threaten those suspected of being less than enthusiastic about him with economic defenestration.

With "American Vertigo," in which he travels the U.S. "in the footsteps of Toqueville," BHL had hoped to sell himself to America. Well, nobody's buying. The book has received universally critical reviews, and its bric-a-brac of dime-store observations has been widely laughed at. Like Garrison Keillor's front-page critique in the New York Times Book Review, which skewered BHL for "the grandiosity of a college sophomore," "a student padding out a term paper," adding, "There's no reason for [the book] to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening."

In an interview with New York magazine, BHL claimed his trip was under three shadows: "The shadow of the war in Iraq, the shadow of an election, and the shadow of Katrina." When the interviewer pointed out that Katrina hadn't struck at the time he wrote the book, BHL simply pirouetted: "The anticipated This incredible statement proves the accuracy of the judgement Mariane_pearl rendered on BHL by Mariane Pearl (photo right), the wife of the subject of BHL's hallucinated last book in English, "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" who became disillusioned by her exposure to BHL. As the perspicacious Mrs. Pearl told the authors of "Une Imposture Francaise," "BHL is a man whose ego destroys intelligence.

And those are "les mots justes." P.S. For a brilliant dissection of the flaws in BHL's "Who Killed Daniel Pearl" by William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books, click here. And to order a copy of 'Une Imposture Francaise," click here.

The above is a considerably expanded version of an article I wrote for IN THESE TIMES, of which I am a Contributing Editor, and which will appear in its March 2006 issue.

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