Bernard-Henri Levy: Nationalism represents a threat to the European idea


Bernard-Henri Levy has been one of the most prominent figures of the French intelligentsia for a good four decades. He was at the forefront of the Nouveaux Philosophes (New Philosophers) movement that broke from its communist roots and sought to deconstruct Marxism. An interlocutor of all French presidents since the end of the late 1970s and author of 40 books, he was a backer of the so-called “humanitarian interventions” by NATO in the Balkans and the Middle East.

He is set to visit Athens as part of a tour of 20 European countries on the eve of European elections. On Monday, April 1, the Pallas Theater at 5 Voukourestiou Street will stage his work “Looking for Europe” – a monologue about the future of the European idea which is threatened by the rise of nationalism.

In an interview ahead of the Athens show, the French thinker referred to the “plague of populism,” defended the liberal elites, expressed concern over the future of the transatlantic alliance, praised French President Emmanuel Macron, and was critical of the “yellow vests” movement.

The fact that a figure of such stature is superlative in his praise of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would have surprised everyone fours years ago and been viewed as fake news. Today it comes as no surprise.

You are currently touring the continent with your play “Looking for Europe,” a cri d’alarme for the future of the European project and liberal democracy itself. Why now, and what difference can a philosopher make on stage?

Now because the European elections are just ahead of us. And now, especially, because of the huge explosion of populism – everywhere. In a sense, the starting gun was fired right here in Greece, when Golden Dawn faced off against SYRIZA’s left wing. And now all of us are in the same spot, with the Italians in the vanguard, in the sense that the League and the Five Star Movement are governing together. What difference can a writer make? I don’t know. But the situation is so serious that one must try. Try anything. Every one of us, each doing what he or she can.

You claim that the coming European elections could be “the most calamitous we have ever seen,” given the tidal wave of nationalism, far-right parties and Orban-style “illiberal democracy.” Who is to blame? Immigration, the destruction of the European social state, and rising inequality are among the usual suspects. What’s your diagnosis?

The migrants are surely not to blame. More broadly, we have to stop associating immigration with the rise of populism, or fascism. Look at New Zealand’s experience. This atrocious murder was committed by a white supremacist at the Christchurch mosque. New Zealand’s population of Muslim origin is tiny, as you know. And yet… No. We have to get used to the idea that the cause of fascism is fascism. It feeds on itself. With different economic and ideological facilitators at any given time.

You recently took the initiative for a European manifesto, signed by 30 prominent authors, intellectuals and Nobel laureates – a passionate plea against what you call the “plague” of populism. What about the liberal European elites? Don’t they bear a share of responsibility for people’s frustration and alienation from the European project?

Do they? I would be curious to know what responsibility Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie or Vassilis Alexakis bears for the frustrations that have produced the explosion of populism! No. Here, too, we have to break free of the current rhetoric. And we also have to cease this insistent and odious criticism of elites. I’m for the elites. Especially those bearing the names of the 30 European patriots who joined me in signing the manifesto. Read it. Reread it. It really is the least bad thing that has been written this year about the political and ideological state of our continent. In fact, it was a very good thing that these 30 European patriots spoke up. I am very happy that the Greek press published the manifesto and very happy that it has had such an impact in Greece.

How do you view President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for a profound reform of the EU project and the reluctant reaction he received from Germany?

I say good for Macron. And too bad about [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel. Merkel is a great leader; she did something extraordinary when she decided, three years ago, not to close the door on the migrants. That was a real moment of greatness, of pure Kantian morality. And so I am sad to see her in retreat on the European question. But remember, she and Macron are not the only leaders in Europe. There are other major figures as well. You have one of them in Greece. You have Tsipras. I am very impressed by his recent metamorphosis. And very impressed by the statesman-like air that he has taken on. That, in fact, is one of the themes of the play – you’ll see; I don’t want to say more about it here. But in the future government of Europe, in its dream government, I imagine a very special place for him. In the play, I imagine a profound reform of Europe’s governance. And in that reformed Europe, I see a major role for Alexis Tsipras. I won’t go on: It’s one of the surprises of the play.

In your last book, “The Empire and the Five Kings,” you deplore what you call “America’s abdication” of world leadership under Donald Trump’s administration. Why would Europe still need America’s tutelage 74 years after the end of the WWII and 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Why? Because it didn’t see what was coming; it didn’t dodge the bullet. And it didn’t foresee the moment – a moment that was nevertheless foreseeable – when a nutcase like Donald Trump might decide that the security of the Old World was no longer America’s business. So we find ourselves cast off; we find ourselves vulnerable to Putin, Erdogan, and others. We are confronted with the absolute necessity of building a European defense. And we must do it together. France and Germany, of course. But the Greeks as well, and the Spaniards, Italians, and the rest. The political reconstruction of Europe, the construction of a common foreign policy and a common defense, is one of the themes I develop in the play. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an emergency.

You have called President Trump “the ringleader” of authoritarian, nationalist leaders all over the world. Would you say that the Trump phenomenon is just a temporary aberration or something more profound and, perhaps, more dangerous?

It is clearly a profound phenomenon. First, because for some time the United States has been backsliding and severing its ties to Europe. It began, in fact, with Barack Obama. And perhaps even before. And second, it’s easy to see that the populist phenomenon, the nationalistic and chauvinistic regression, is manifesting itself all across Europe. The United States is just a part of the wider picture. So I’m afraid we haven’t seen the last of the unpleasant surprises that await us. On this score, too, the play offers a very specific explanation. And it lays out what we can expect in the near future.

How do you explain the parallel rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Western democracies, as the Pittsburgh massacre and the Christchurch carnage tragically demonstrated?

Be careful with the expression, “Islamophobia.” I prefer to speak in terms of racism. Or hatred for Muslims. And hatred for Muslims is indeed spiking in a terrifying way. The Christchurch massacre filled me with fear, as did the killings in Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg. And any attempt to compare their horror, to define a hierarchy, to choose among the dead, is thoroughly abject. So, what lies behind the twin ascent of anti-Semitism and racism? I believe there is a base potential that is always present in all modern societies. At quiet moments in our history, that base is contained. And then, all of a sudden, the dikes break. That’s where we find ourselves now.

You’ve called for European and US military interventions on humanitarian grounds in Bosnia, Libya and Syria. Have you had second thoughts after the calamitous result of NATO’s intervention in Libya and the problematic state of affairs in the Western Balkans?

I have no regrets – none whatsoever. First, because it is never regrettable to topple a dictator. But also because one must compare comparable things. In this case: Libya, where the world intervened; and Syria, where it didn’t. You are quite right that the outcome of the intervention in Libya was not as stellar as we might have hoped: a degree of disorder and a low-intensity civil war. And some jihadist strongholds that inflicted damage before being neutralized by the Libyans themselves. But on the Syrian side, what do you see? Not a few strongholds, but all of ISIS. Not neutralization by Syrian citizens, but the need for a large-scale international intervention to destroy the jihadist underworld. And as for disorder, we’re not talking about low-intensity disorder but about millions of men, women and children fleeing the country. Hundreds of thousands of deaths. The outcome of nonintervention (in Syria) has been infinitely costlier than that of intervention (in Libya).

During the so-called Arab Spring and the Gezi Park protests against Erdogan, social media were hailed as powerful tools of citizens’ movements against authoritarian regimes. Now they are blamed for fake news, hate messages, and foreign interventions in election processes. What’s your assessment?

Both things are true. On the first point, we were right to think as we did, because it was a fact that the internet revolution gave an unprecedented boost to all democratic movements, to efforts to save lives, to major popular insurrections, to campaigns of solidarity. And now it’s the invasion of fake news, the disqualification of truth, the demotion of truth to the rank of an opinion. We moved from the idea that everyone had the right to self-expression to the very different idea that everyone’s expression was equally worthwhile. In other words, we moved from the democracy of speech to a sort of sophistry of opinion. Once again, this is a familiar story for Greeks. The debate between Socrates and the Sophists is written in your DNA and in your culture. And now the whole Western world is at that point. Today we’re all Greeks from the 5th century BC.