Bernard-Henri Lévy

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Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henri Lévy-tau-1.jpg
Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University
Born (1948-11-05) 5 November 1948 (age 65)
Béni Saf, French Algeria
Era 20th-century philosophy
21st-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Religion Jewish[1]
School Continental philosophy
Nouveaux Philosophes

Bernard-Henri Lévy (French: [bɛʁnaʁ ɑ̃ʁi levi]; born 5 November 1948) is a French public intellectual and author. Often referred to today in France simply as BHL,[2] he was one of the leaders of the "Nouveaux Philosophes" (New Philosophers) movement in 1976. In 2010, The Jerusalem Post named Lévy 45th on a list of the world's 50 most influential Jews.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Lévy was born in Béni Saf, French Algeria, to a wealthy Algerian Jewish family. His family moved to Paris a few months after his birth. His father, André Lévy, was the multimillionaire founder and manager of a timber company, Becob.[citation needed]

After attending the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Lévy enrolled in the elite and highly selective École Normale Supérieure in 1968, from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Some of his professors there included prominent French intellectuals and philosophers Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. Lévy is also a pre-eminent journalist, having started his career as a war reporter for Combat, the newspaper founded underground by Albert Camus during the German occupation of France. In 1971, he travelled to the Indian subcontinent, and was in Bangladesh covering the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan. This experience was the source of his first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la révolution ("Bangladesh, Nationalism in the Revolution"), which was published in 1973.

New Philosophers[edit]

Returning to Paris, Lévy became famous as the young founder of the New Philosophers (Nouveaux Philosophes) school. This was a group of young intellectuals who were disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near-revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, and who articulated a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas.[3] Throughout the 1970s, Lévy taught a course on epistemology at the Université de Strasbourg and he taught philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. It was in 1977, on the television show Apostrophes,[4] that Lévy was presented, alongside André Glucksmann, as a nouveau philosophe. In the very same year he published Barbarism with a Human Face (La barbarie à visage humain), arguing that Marxism was inherently corrupt.

Intellectual involvement[edit]

In 1981, Lévy published L'Idéologie française ("The French Ideology"), arguably his most influential work, in which he offers a dark picture of French history. It was strongly criticised for its journalistic character and unbalanced approach to French history by some of the most respected French academics – including Raymond Aron (see his Memoirs).

Lévy was one of the first French intellectuals to call for intervention in the Bosnian War in the 1990s, and spoke out early about the Serb concentration camps. He referred to the Jewish experience in the Holocaust as providing a lesson that mass murder cannot be ignored by those in other nations.[5]

When his father died in 1995, Lévy became the manager of the Becob company, until it was sold in 1997 for 750 million francs to the French entrepreneur François Pinault.

At the end of the 1990s, he founded with Benny Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut an Institute on Levinassian Studies at Jerusalem.

He is member of nonprofit advocacy group JCall.

Political positions[edit]

In 2003, Lévy wrote an account of his efforts to track the murderer of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who had been beheaded by Islamic extremists the previous year. At the time of Pearl's death, Lévy was visiting Afghanistan as French President Jacques Chirac's special envoy.[6] He spent the next year in Pakistan, India, Europe and the United States trying to uncover why Pearl's captors held and executed him. The resulting book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, argues it was because Pearl knew too much about the links between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and al-Qaeda. The book won praise for Lévy's courage in investigating the affair in one of the world's most dangerous regions but was condemned by the British historian of India and travel writer William Dalrymple (among others) for its lack of rigour and its caricatural depictions of Pakistani society, as well as his decision to fictionalise Pearl's thoughts in the closing moments of his life.[7][8][9][10]

Although Lévy's books have been translated into the English language since La Barbarie à visage humain, his breakthrough in the English language was with the publication of a series of essays between May and November 2005 for The Atlantic Monthly. In the series, "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville", Lévy imitated his compatriot and predecessor in American critique, Alexis de Tocqueville, criss-crossing the United States, interviewing Americans and recording his observations first for magazine and then book publication. The book was met with derision in the United States, and was ridiculed by Garrison Keillor in a review on the front page of the New York Times.[11]

In March 2006, a letter Lévy co-signed entitled MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism with eleven other individuals (most notably Salman Rushdie) was published in response to violent and deadly protests in the Muslim world surrounding the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

With the aid of real Washington political advisers, Italian conceptual artist, Francesco Vezzoli, created two commercials for competing US presidential campaigns – pitting Sharon Stone against Bernard-Henri Lévy – in a project entitled Democrazy, shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale.


Lévy directed the widely panned 1997 romance film, Le Jour et la Nuit (Day and Night).[citation needed]

Recent activities[edit]

Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University

In September 2008, Lévy toured the United States to promote his book Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.

In 2006, Lévy contributed to the British debate over Muslim women's veils by suggesting to The Jewish Chronicle that "the veil is an invitation to rape".[12]

On 24 June 2009, Lévy posted a video on Dailymotion in support of the Iranian protesters who were being repressed after the contested elections.[13]

He is a member of the Selection Committee of the Editions Grasset, and he runs the La Règle du Jeu ("The Rule of the Game") magazine. He writes a weekly column in the magazine Le Point and chairs the Conseil de Surveillance of La Sept-Arte.

Through the 2000s, Lévy argued that the world must pay more attention to the crisis in Darfur.[5]

In January 2010, he publicly defended Popes Pius XII and Benedict XVI against political attacks directed against them from within the Jewish community.[14]

At the opening of the "Democracy and its Challenges" conference in Tel Aviv (May 2010) Lévy gave a very high estimation of the Israel Defense Forces, saying "I have never seen such a democratic army, which asks itself so many moral questions. There is something unusually vital about Israeli democracy."[15]

Lévy has reported from troubled zones during wartime, to attract public opinion, in France and abroad, over those political changes. In August 2008, Lévy reported from South Ossetia, Georgia, during the 2008 South Ossetia war; on that occasion he interviewed the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.[16]

In March 2011, he engaged in talks with Libyan rebels in Benghazi, and publicly promoted the international acknowledgement of the recently formed National Transitional Council.[17][18] Later that month, worried about the 2011 Libyan civil war, he prompted and then supported Nicolas Sarkozy's seeking to persuade Washington, and ultimately the United Nations, to intervene in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi.[19]

In May 2011, Lévy defended IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn when Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in New York City. Lévy suggested that the chambermaid had been sent as part of an anti-Kahn conspiracy, stating in The Daily Beast, "It would be nice to know – and without delay – how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a 'cleaning brigade' of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet."[20][21]

In May 2011, Lévy argued for military intervention in Syria against Bashar al-Assad after violence against civilians in response to the 2011 Syrian uprising.[22] He repeated his position in a letter to the Weekly Standard in August 2013.[23]

On 9 November 2011, his book, La guerre sans l'aimer, which tells the story of his Libyan spring, was published.[24][25][26][27]

In April 2013, he was convicted by a French court for libelling journalist Bernard Cassen.[28]

Lévy curated a major art exhibition in 2013 entitled Adventures of truth – Painting and philosophy: a narrative at the Maeght Foundation.

He criticized international community for their acts during genocide on Bosniaks.[29]


Early essays, such as Le Testament de Dieu or L'Idéologie française faced strong rebuttals, from noted intellectuals on all sides of the ideological spectrum, such as historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet and philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis, Raymond Aron and Gilles Deleuze, who called Lévy's methods "vile".[30] Their most common accusation towards Lévy is of him being one-sided and, ultimately, shallow as a thinker. Vidal-Naquet went as far as saying: "BHL's intellectual dishonesty is properly unfathomable".

More recently, in the essay De la guerre en philosophie (2010), Lévy was publicly embarrassed when he used, as a central point of his refutation of Kant, the writings of French "philosopher" Jean-Baptiste Botul.[31] Botul's writings are actually well-known spoofs, and Botul himself is the fictional creation of a living French journalist and philosopher, Frédéric Pagès, as is rather easily guessed from his thought-system being botulism.[32]

Another round of criticism addresses Lévy's reliance on his connections with the French literary and business circles to promote his works. Lévy had for years business ties with billionaire François Pinault, befriended Jean-Luc Lagardère, who owned Hachette Livre, the largest publisher in France, and Hachette Filipacchi Médias, the largest magazine publisher in the world. Lévy was even briefly related to Jean-Paul Enthoven, publisher of Grasset (a novel and essay division of Hachette Livre), when his daughter Justine Lévy was married to Enthoven's son Raphaël. Lévy has been chairman of the supervisory board for French-German cultural TV channel Arte, was for years a columnist for French newspaper Le Monde and is currently a columnist for both news magazine Le Point (owned by François Pinault) and national daily newspaper Libération, in addition to being a shareholder and member of the supervisory board. In the essay Une imposture française, journalists Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer claim that Lévy uses his unique position as an influential member of both the literary and business establishments in France to be the go-between between the two worlds, which helps him to get positive reviews as marks of gratitude, while silencing dissenters.

For instance, Beau and Toscer noted that most of the reviews published in France for Who Killed Daniel Pearl? didn't mention strong denials about the book given by experts and Pearl's own family including wife Marianne Pearl who called Lévy "a man whose intelligence is destroyed by his own ego".[33]

In 2011, he commented in support of his friend of twenty years Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was arrested on sexual allegations, referring to the allegations as, "absurd."[34]

Personal life[edit]

Lévy is married to French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle. His eldest daughter by his first marriage to Isabelle Doutreluigne, Justine Lévy, is a best-selling novelist. He also has a son, Antonin-Balthazar Lévy, by his second wife, Sylvie Bouscasse.

The close relationship between married French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy and socialite Daphne Guinness has become something of an open secret known and acknowledged by most US society columnists since 2008.[citation needed] On 13 July 2010, Daphne Guinness confirmed the whole story in the UK press.[citation needed]

Lévy is, with his third wife, a regular fixture in Paris Match magazine, wearing his trademark unbuttoned white shirts and designer suits. Some have attributed to Lévy a reputation for narcissism.[35] One article about him coined the dictum, "God is dead but my hair is perfect."[36] He once said that the discovery of a new shade of grey left him "ecstatic."[35] He is a regular victim of the "pie thrower" Noël Godin,[35] who describes Lévy as "a vain, pontificating dandy".[citation needed] At one point, Godin launched so many successful attacks against Lévy that whenever a puppet depicting him on a satirical French television show began to speak, it was silenced by a cascade of pies.[37]

Lévy is proudly Jewish, and he has said that Jews ought to provide a unique Jewish moral voice in society and politics.[5]

Lévy has been friends with Nicolas Sarkozy since 1983. Relations between them deteriorated during Sarkozy's 2007 presidential run in which Lévy backed the Socialist candidate and also described Sarkozy as "A man with a warrior vision of politics". However, they grew closer again after Sarkozy's victory.[38]


Lévy was one of six prominent Jewish public figures in Europe targeted for assassination by a Belgium-based Islamist militant group in 2008. The list included others in France such as Josy Eisenberg. That plot was reportedly foiled after the group's leader, Abdelkader Belliraj, was arrested based on unrelated murder charges from the 1980s.[39]


Lévy's works have been translated into many different languages; below is an offering of works available in either French or English.

  • Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la révolution, 1973.
  • La barbarie à visage humain, 1977.
  • "Response to the Master Censors". Telos 33 (Fall 1977). New York: Telos Press.
  • Le testament de Dieu, 1978.
  • Idéologie française, 1981.
  • Le diable en tête, 1984.
  • Eloge des intellectuels, 1987.
  • Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, 1988.
  • Les aventures de la liberté, 1991.
  • Le jugement dernier, 1992
  • Piero della Francesca, 1992
  • Les hommes et les femmes, 1994.
  • Bosna!,1994.
  • La pureté dangereuse, 1994.
  • Adventures on the Freedom Road, Harvill Press, 1995, hardcover, ISBN 1-86046-035-6
  • What Good Are Intellectuals: 44 Writers Share Their Thoughts, Algora Publishing, 2000, paperback, 276 pages, ISBN 1-892941-10-4
  • Comédie, 1997.
  • Le siècle de Sartre, 2000.
  • Réflexions sur la Guerre, le Mal et la fin de l'Histoire, 2002.
  • Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, translated by Andrew Brown, Polity Press, July 2003, hardcover, 456 pages, ISBN 0-7456-3009-X
  • Qui a tué Daniel Pearl?, 2003, in English as Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, (Melville House Publishing), September 2003, hardcover, 454 pages, ISBN 0-9718659-4-9
  • War, Evil and End of History, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd [UK], (Melville House Publishing) [US], October 2004, hardcover, 400 pages, ISBN 0-7156-3336-8; paperback, ISBN 978-0-9718659-5-2
  • Récidives, 2004.
  • American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, Random House, January 2006, hardcover, 320 pages, ISBN 1-4000-6434-1
  • Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, translated by Benjamin Moser, Random House Publishing Group, 2009, 256 pages, ISBN 0-8129-7472-7; paperback, ISBN 978-0-8129-7472-0
  • Bernard-Henri Lévy, Michel Houellebecq, Ennemis publics, 2008, translated by Miriam Frendo and Frank Wynne as Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, London: Atlantic Books; New York: Random House, 2011, paperback, 320 pages, ISBN 0-8129-8078-6


  1. ^ a b Linde, Steve (21 May 2010). "World's 50 most influential Jews". Jerusalem Post. "45. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philosopher." 
  2. ^ "Rousselet et BHL entrent au capital de Libération". Le nouvel Observateur. 25 June 2008. 
  3. ^ Alexander, Beth R. (10 November 2004). "Commentary: Bernard Henri-Lévy takes heat". UPI Perspectives. UPI. "... a group who broke away from the Marxist ideology dominating late 1960s France and the hard-line French left typified by Jean-Paul Sartre." 
  4. ^ Apostrophes was a French TV program hosted by Bernard Pivot
  5. ^ a b c environment-science | Leadel – Leading Jewish Inspiration. Leadel. Retrieved on 19 May 2011.
  6. ^ Graff, James (4 May 2003). "The Engaged Intellect". TIME 161 (19). "The Envoy: At the request of French President Jacques Chirac, Lévy traveled to Afghanistan in February 2002 to gauge the needs of the Afghan people..." 
  7. ^ Asia Times – Who killed Daniel Pearl?. (28 June 2003). Retrieved on 19 May 2011.
  8. ^ Murder in Karachi by William Dalrymple | The New York Review of Books. (4 December 2003). Retrieved on 19 May 2011.
  9. ^ 'Murder in Karachi': An Exchange by Bernard-Henri Levy | The New York Review of Books. Retrieved on 19 May 2011.
  10. ^ "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?". BBC News. 23 October 2003. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  11. ^ Keillor, Garrison (29 January 2006). "On the Road Avec M. Lévy". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  12. ^ The Jewish Chronicle, 14 October 2006 edition. Not available online, quote in context: "Our time is almost up, but BHL becomes the most animated I have seen him when I ask him about Jack Straw's intervention on Muslim women and the veil. ‘Jack Straw’, he says, leaning close to me, ‘made a great point. He did not say that he was against the veil. He said it is much easier, much more comfortable, respectful, to speak with a woman with a naked face. And without knowing, he quoted Levinas, who is the philosopher of the face. Levinas says that [having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate him. So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape"
  13. ^ Message to the Young People of Iran by Bernard-Henri Lévy – une vidéo Nieuws & Politiek. Dailymotion. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  14. ^ 7s7 Monde – Bernard-Henri Lévy défend Benoît XVI et Pie XII (1056957). Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  15. ^ "Bernard Henri Levy: I have never seen an army as democratic as the IDF". Haaretz. 30 May 2010. Retrieved 1 June 2010. 
  16. ^ "Georgia at War: What I Saw", The Huffington Post, 20 August 2008
  17. ^ L'appel de BHL depuis Benghazi (Libye) en direct sur TF1 au – une vidéo Nieuws & Politiek. Dailymotion. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  18. ^ "How a philosopher swayed France's response on Libya". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  19. ^ "By His Own Reckoning, One Man Made Libya a French Cause", The New York Times, 1 April 2011
  20. ^ "Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Bernard-Henri Lévy Defends IMF Director". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  21. ^ Dowd, Maureen (18 May 2011). "Powerful and Primitive". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ Bernard-Henri Levy (19 May 2011). "After Qaddafi, Assad". The New Republic. Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  23. ^ "Experts to Obama: Here Is What to Do in Syria"Weekly standard August 2013
  24. ^ "Cinq bonnes raisons de dévorer le dernier BHL", Atlantico, 8 November 2011, MRY
  25. ^ "La légende dorée de BHL en Libye", Le Monde. 7 November 2011}
  26. ^ "BHL en Libye, sur les traces de Lawrence d'Arabie", Rue89, 7 November 2011, Pierre Haski
  27. ^ "Bernard-Henri Lévy en Libye, la guerre intime", Le Figaro, 8 November 2011, Sébastien Le Fol
  28. ^ "Même la justice française condamne BHL...", Le Monde Diplomatique, 26 April 2013.
  29. ^
  30. ^ Gilles Deleuze, A propos des nouveaux philosophes et d'un problème plus général, first published in May 1977
  31. ^ Bremner, Charles (9 February 2010). "BernardHenri Lvy a laughing stock for quoting fictional philosopher". The Times (London). Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  32. ^ Carvajal, Doreen (10 February 2010). "Philosopher Left to Muse on Ridicule Over a Hoax". The New York Times. p. 4. 
  33. ^ Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer, Une imposture française, éditions des Arènes, 2006
  34. ^ "Dominique Strauss-Kahn Defended Witlessly By Bernard-Henri Levy And Ben Stein "
  35. ^ a b c Wood, Gaby (15 June 2003). "Je suis un superstar". The Observer (London). 
  36. ^ O'Donnell, Michael (29 January 2006). "Another Frenchman assesses our democracy". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  37. ^
  38. ^ Why Sarkozy Went to War. Newsweek (3 April 2011). Retrieved on 19 May 2011.
  39. ^ Bernard Henri Levy among 6 Jews said targeted by Islamist group – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News. Retrieved on 19 May 2011.

Further reading[edit]

Note: Some of the content of this article comes from the equivalent French-language wikipedia article.
  • Dominique Lecourt, Mediocracy: French Philosophy Since the Mid-1970s (2001), new ed. Verso, London, 2002.
  • Craig Owens, "Sects and Language," in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Scott Bryson, et al., eds. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1992), 243–52.

External links[edit]