“The history of France, a permanent miracle, has the singular privilege of impassioning the peoples of the earth to the point where they all take part in French quarrels,” the French author André Maurois wrote. With Bernard-Henri Lévy, it often seems that the world’s most famous French intellectual is taking part in everyone else’s quarrels. Born in Algeria, to a Jewish family, B.H.L. (as he is known) made a name for himself as a journalist in East Pakistan, in the early seventies, during its struggle to become Bangladesh. A few years later, he was part of a group of young French writers, called the New Philosophers, who broke decisively from Marxism and the influence of Sartre. Over the past several decades, he has written philosophy and history and journalism, on subjects ranging from the war in Bosnia to the death of Daniel Pearl and the need for a strong stand against Islamic fundamentalism.
He has also, unlike some of his forebears, evinced a passionate love for the United States. He retraced Tocqueville’s footsteps in a series of essays for The Atlantic (which became the book “American Vertigo”), speaks proudly of his “anti-anti-Americanism,” and has urged the United States to exercise its power, voicing support for military action in Libya. (He played a large role in convincing the French government to help overthrow Muammar Qaddafi.) His new book is called “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World,” and it explains why an American “retreat” from the global stage is likely to have calamitous effects, with other, less democratic countries filling the void.
Lévy has sparked controversy for a number of his stances, including his advocacy for France’s burqa ban, his “unconditional love” of Israel, and his criticism of the rape cases against the film director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory rape, in 1978, and fled to France to avoid imprisonment, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Strauss-Kahn, a friend of Lévy’s, has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct. In 2011, New York prosecutors charged him with the sexual assault of a maid at a Manhattan hotel; the charges were dropped, but not before Lévy published a piece defending Strauss-Kahn, in which he questioned why a maid would have gone into Strauss-Kahn’s hotel room alone, and claimed that his friend had been “thrown to the dogs.”
I recently spoke twice by phone with Lévy. During our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his feelings about the war in Libya, the rights of women in Muslim societies, and his support for Polanski and Strauss-Kahn.
Has the rise of Donald Trump made you rethink anything you believed about America?
No, because I am an admirer of the democracy in America, of the institutions in America, of the creed in America. But I always knew that there was a part of this country that was unfaithful and wary of this creed, institutions, and values. When I wrote “American Vertigo,” I knew that this America existed, this populist America, sometimes this semi-Fascist America, this America turning its back on its own glorious identity. I always knew that. It’s not a surprise. The surprise is that, because of the world’s big populist wave, No. 1, and because of the electoral college, No. 2, this America came in the White House. It makes a big difference, of course, but I am sure it does not change my admiration for America.
Does it make you think that if America is going to elect people like Donald Trump, we should think differently about how active America should be in the world?
No. I just think that America is currently playing against its values and its self-interests. It’s lose-lose behavior, losing on every ground, losing on principles, losing on interests. I don’t believe in this idea of America making deals and so on. I think that when America, contemporary America, turns its back on its vocation—exceptionalism, creed, and so on—it is bad for the rest of America. It is not a source of prosperity; it is the opposite. So my hope and my belief is that the time will come, sooner probably than what Americans think, when the country will match again with its creed and its self-interests.
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You were instrumental in pushing for action to overthrow Qaddafi. How do you evaluate that eight years later?
It was the right thing to do. I was instrumental in France, but not only. Hillary Clinton, by the way, related it also in her memoirs. She spoke about my visit to her, my pressure with the Libyan revolutionaries. I absolutely believe it was the right thing to do for you and for us and for the Libyans. My view is that if we had not done that, we would have today not only one but two Syrias. And Syria is something else than the problem that Libya faces. In Libya, you have disorder and you have civil war of low intensity and you have some pockets of jihadism, but the pockets of jihadism were picked out and were destroyed by the Libyans themselves, in Derna, in Sirte, in Misurata. The civil war is not good, of course, but it is low intensity. Syria is the opposite. It’s a huge war against civilians. As you know, millions of refugees. Absolutely incomparable. In other words, when you [do the math], the result of noninvolvement and of involvement, the first one is much worse, the balance of noninvolvement is absolutely a thousand per cent more heavy.
You wrote, at the time, “What is dying: an ancient concept of sovereignty in which all crimes are permitted as long as they go on within the frontiers of the state. What has been born: the idea of the universality of rights that is no longer a pious hope but a passionate obligation for all who truly believe in the unity of mankind and in the virtue of the right to intervene, which is its corollary.” Has Libya at least changed your mind about people in the West being overconfident about the ability of regime change to have long-lasting accomplishments?
No. There are two different things. In terms of principles, we have to hold firm. It is a duty, a moral duty, to hold firm the idea that there is no people, no ethnicity, forbidding democracy. Democracy is a universal value and it can be adopted in any situation, and it is absolutely a racist point of view to say that this part of the world or that part of the world is unable to build a democracy. No. 2, to build a democracy, you don’t do that overnight—with one exception, and that is Israel, a democracy built overnight in 1948. Except for that, democracy takes time.
You write in the book, “During the war in Libya, and then during the freeze, the convulsions, and the confusion that followed, when the very idea of an Arab democratic revolution seemed lost, I continued to make myself available—for an attempted mediation in Paris, for a summit in Tunis,” et cetera. Are you still available to play that role?
Of course. To my last minute. I am available for two things. No. 1, to write books—when I isolate myself, and I close my ears, and I dive in the depths of my words—but, yes, I am available for what you said, for what I said in this part of the book. If tomorrow there is a call from a friend in Libya or Syria, if I can help, of course I will do it.
Lest people think you uncritically love America—and maybe I have given that perception—it’s absolutely the case that you have criticized America. One thing you have criticized is our criminal-justice system, and particularly the cases of Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Why do you think America cracked down on these men?
Because of the madness, because of political correctness having become mad. This is class justice reversed. Former Marxists spoke about class justice, which means there is impunity for the powerful, the famous, the rich, and heavy justice for the powerless, the poor, and the have-nots. Today, in America, you have this huge wave of political correctness, which was good at the start, which was good in principle, but which has, as often, produced some crazy effects, and this is one. You have class justice reversed. It was clear in the case of Strauss-Kahn that the fact that he was rich, he was white, and he was powerful made him be treated in a way particularly severe, with the perp walk and so on, with this big show of justice. This show.
You stated that Roman Polanski had “perhaps had committed a youthful error” and wrote, in 2010, “The ‘illegal sexual intercourse’ that Roman Polanski acknowledged he was guilty of 32 years ago is not, for all that, the deadly crime, even crime against humanity, that the avengers hot on his heels have been denouncing for the past 10 days. Yes, it is a crime. But there are degrees in the scale of crimes. And it is an insult to good sense, an assault on reason, a door left open to all kinds of confusion, to muddle everything, to try to make everyone believe that a rape is a crime of the same nature as, for example, the one his wife Sharon Tate was a victim of.” You say, “Perhaps had committed a youthful error.” He was, I guess, thirteen at the time. Oh no, no, his victim was thirteen at the time. He was forty-three.
What I wanted to tell you was that, a few years ago, I made a little investigation, and I discovered that the year when he committed this crime, in the same county of California, he was probably the most heavily punished among the men who did such crimes. Because he was famous and rich and so on, he was not spared by justice but exactly the reverse.
For raping a thirteen-year-old, we are talking about?
Yes, raping. Fourteen, fifteen, thirteen, whatever. It’s a crime, anyway. He was the most heavily punished. He went in jail and so forth. My point is that we are in a time where sometimes you have this class justice reversed. I remember, for the New York Times, I did an interview with Bill Keller [the former executive editor of the Times]. He told me that you, Bernard-Henri Lévy, generally defend minorities, ethnic minorities, the poor, and the have-nots. How can you defend a rich, powerful white man? And I told him, I’m sorry, but justice has nothing to do with being white or not white, powerful or not. Justice is justice. Law is law. The penalty has to be adapted to the guiltiness. The guiltiness has to be scrutinized first.
Do you feel that we have this political correctness, which you said you thought was helpful at the beginning, but now people are freaking out about raping thirteen-year-old girls?
To rape a thirteen-year-old girl is a huge crime, which deserves a huge penalty, which deserves jail and so on. But, when the penalty has been purged, the system of justice is that you have paid your debt—that’s what they tell you. To rape, in general, is a crime, and one of the good virtues of the #MeToo movement is to have imposed the idea to every single man in America and the Western world that to rape is a huge crime against the essence of humanity for a woman, or for a man when a man is raped. No, no, no, I didn’t say that. But Roman Polanski paid his debt and went to jail.
Polanski left the country.
He left the country after having paid his penalty. He went to jail first.
He was still a fugitive, just to be clear. And to turn to Dominique Strauss-Kahn—when another woman accused him of attempted rape, you wrote, “I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.” [After Strauss-Kahn was charged with rape, in 2011, a French journalist said that he had tried to rape her several years earlier.] How do you know she was pretending?
Where did I say that?
You wrote an article where you said “who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape.”
What is the name of this girl and where did I publish this article?
The woman was Tristane Banon.
O.K. O.K. And then? What I think is that these crimes, these acts are huge crimes. And you cannot—
The Daily Beast is where you wrote it.
So this has to be treated very seriously, and to take very seriously an alleged crime is to go to justice, is to scrutinize, is to exchange arguments and exchange witnesses, word against word. Until the moment that this crime has been proven, it is alleged or pretended.
I asked because you said “pretend,” and you didn’t mention that a lot of women don’t come forward initially because it was a traumatic experience or they are not believed or, you know, people will say they are pretending.
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No, no, no, no. I don’t say . . . I say that “pretend” is a clear word in law, in the state of law. Until a crime is proved, it is alleged. When it is proved, it is committed and it has to be punished, any crime, according to the scale of law.
[Levy later clarified that he meant “pretends” in the sense of the French “prétendre,” or “to claim.” The article had been translated from French, and “prétendre” appeared in the original.]
So when you said she “shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television . . . ”
O.K. It’s a quote from me. So what?
I want to understand what you meant by that.
I meant exactly what I said.
So “sensing the golden opportunity” is what you meant?
I don’t remember this text, sir. If it is in the Daily Beast, it is my text, no doubt.
You have written a lot about troubles within Islam. You recently tweeted, “Hijab Day at Sc Po [Sciences Po]. So when is there going to be a sharia day? Or stoning day? Or slavery day?” You have also compared a head scarf to inviting rape.
No, no, no, no. I never said that. That is a false quote which are on and on. I never said this sentence of veil and rape. Never ever.
So it’s a fake quote?
I never said that.
“So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape.”
No, no. I never said that. What I say is that the veil for women is a sign of submission, a sign of power of the men over the women, a sign of the inferiority of the women, and what I say is that I cannot see the reason why a woman should be forbidden to show her face or her hair, and I find absolutely disgusting the idea that we men have sort of purity and that the hair of women [is a sign of] impurity. I never said this sentence.
The quote appeared in an October, 2006, profile of you in the Jewish Chronicle, a London-based newspaper. Do you know the piece I am talking about?
I know the piece and I said various times that I never said that.
So they made it up?
It is not a quote by me.
I agree with you completely that men telling women what they should be able to wear is disgraceful. I was wondering what you think about France’s policy of also having restrictions on what women can wear, in terms of the burqa ban, and whether you think that has been a successful policy.
I am in favor of the burqa ban because I think that the burqa is a jail—a jail of tissue, but still a jail. It is a sign of slavery. Even when a woman says that she accepts or she wishes to be a slave, I don’t think that a democratic society should bless slavery, even when it is consented to, even when it is accepted. Democratic society cannot bless slavery.
So you think all women who wear the veil are essentially slaves?
All women who wear the burqa are put in a state of slavery, and all the women who wear the veil accept the idea or are forced to accept the idea that they are not the equal of men, that there is something un-pure in their hair, in their freedom, in the grace of the way they move, which is only reserved to women and which is not the case for the man.
Have you talked to women who wear a covering and who feel differently, and what do they say to you?
Of course, I spoke with this sort of woman. Sometimes they are obliged by the law of the micro-society or big society or are compelled to do that, and if they don’t do that, they put themselves apart from the society. Sometimes they accept it really. What I see, what I hear, when I speak with them, is that they share a vision of the world which is built by the men and which creates a state of inferiority for them. They interiorize this doctrine, this theory.
Do you think the ban was helpful for France?
I think so, because it was healthy for the huge majority of Muslims in France who are secular, who are democrats. They found themselves helped, encouraged, in their behavior. If we had accepted the veil, it would have been as if we, the French Republic, led them to their destiny. The ban of the veil was an extended hand to this part of Muslim society that wants to embrace secular values.
I think it’s important for different communities and faiths to embrace secular and feminist ways, in a society where, when women come forward about things like sexual assault, they are, broadly speaking, believed. All these things are very important.
Yeah. I’m sorry. What was the question?
I was agreeing that we need secularism and a society where women are respected—
I really believe that all the behaviors, all the values are not equal, and I believe that respect of women is better than non-respect of women. I really believe that secularism is better than bigotry. I believe that not because they are Western values but because they are values that protect and save bodies of people.
Yeah, if you are a woman in Libya or Iran, a woman who works at a hotel in New York, whatever it is.
[Long pause] Yeah. [Long pause]
Sir, can you hear me?
I’m here. I’m here.
I just said that they deserve to be respected and heard.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it. I got it. I heard you. I heard.
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of timely interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.Read more »