The French Philosopher Who Loves America

By Tunku Varadarajan (WSJ)

Feb. 8, 2019 6:32 p.m. ET

Bernard-Henri Lévy describes the gilets jaunes as a ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ and Trump as an ‘epiphenomenon’ of American ‘retreat.’

New York

Bernard-Henri Lévy is bleary-eyed. He’s a dashing spectacle in every other way, but his eyelids loll from a lack of sleep. Bustling in the kitchen of his suite at the Carlyle Hotel is his young assistant, who knows exactly what to do for a boss who’s flown in from Paris. “Quatre sachets,” she says as she brings a small teapot to the table, crammed with four bags of Darjeeling.

BHL—to use Mr. Lévy’s nickname—is a philosopher given to interpreting the world’s maladies. He is in New York for the publication on Feb. 12 of his latest book, elegantly provocative, “The Empire and the Five Kings.” It describes “the new geopolitical order which is designing itself before our eyes” as a result of “America’s abdication” of global leadership.

“You have America going back,” he says, “retreating and lowering its flag, both on military and ideological terms.” In Mr. Lévy’s thesis, “five former empires, which we all thought to be dead and buried, are waking up again—Russia, China, Turkey, Sunni radical Islamism and Persia. We thought they were pure ghosts—but no, they are moving again; they are dancing again on the floor of the world.” They are rushing unchecked, he says, into the voids left everywhere by the retreat of the West, most notably under Donald Trump.

A public intellectual in the French manner, Mr. Lévy, 70, has long had the ear of many of his country’s presidents and other politicians. He does not shrink from inserting himself into the world’s war zones. Of these, he is most involved in Northern Iraq, where he is a tireless advocate for Kurdish autonomy. The high point of his worldliness came in 2011, when, by many accounts—including his own—he persuaded then-President Nicolas Sarkozy to pursue the toppling of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who faced a major uprising in the Arab Spring.

The uprising that most preoccupies Mr. Lévy today is one that rumbles on in France itself. Since November, the country has seen the eruption of the gilets jaunes—the “yellow jackets”—political protesters who have converged on the heart of Paris, wreaking physical havoc on some of France’s most cherished symbols. Driven by an incendiary mix of ideologies, they have demanded the repeal of a steep new fuel tax, to which President Emmanuel Macron has acceded, as well as the implementation of “citizens’ referendums,” to which he has not.

The yellow jackets also called for Mr. Macron to resign, but he seems, for the moment, to have subdued the insurrection by launching a two-month Grand Débat National on what ails France. Some see the debate as a cynical ploy to deflate the enraged mob, others as a statesmanlike attempt to hear everyone out. BHL subscribes to the second view. “You know the Greek word maieutic [μαιευτική]? he says. “It’s a word of Socrates. It means that your interlocutor is pregnant with an idea of which he’s not clearly aware himself, and that you help him to deliver it.” With his national debate, Mr. Lévy says, “Macron has invented a political maieutic.”

The protests, Mr. Lévy says, are “a big Event, with a capital E, in the history of France over the last two or three centuries”—so seminal that they will “remain in the archive” for later generations to marvel at.

“What’s happening here?” he asks, then answers: “Anger, for sure. A populist riot, for sure. But also the first real nihilist riots in modern European history.” Past riots, he says, always “had a target, a sense, a hope. There was the idea that the future could be better than the present. For the first time now, we have a pure moment of collective despair.” In the Paris Commune insurrection of 1871, he allows, “you had an attempt to burn the Louvre, so there was a nihilist dimension. But there was hope for a better world. There is nothing of the sort with the yellow-jacket movement.”

So who are the gilets jaunes? “They are obviously desperate people, who feel they are treated in an unfair way,” says Mr. Lévy. “And they are right.” Yet many of the protesters own cars and tractors, farms and small businesses—that’s why they hate the fuel tax. How desperate can they be? “They work during the week,” Mr. Lévy says, “and they demonstrate on Saturday. In other words, they are certainly not the Damned of the Earth.”

Further, “the words in which they express this suffering,” Mr. Lévy says, “recall the worst of French history.” The movement has been egged on by “the two extremes of our political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen”—the leaders of France’s extreme left and right, respectively. The two, Mr. Lévy adds, “are real twins,” who represent “the darkest political forces in France.” If the yellow jackets were American, Mr. Lévy adds, they would support Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. “They might oscillate—swing between the two.”

In BHL’s mind, the protests constitute “the third crisis of liberal democracy in France.” The first happened at the time of the Dreyfus affair—the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second was at the beginning of the 1930s, when citizens of a floundering France “began to think that liberal values were dead and that fascism represented the future.” He describes the yellow jackets as “the same sorts of people.” They turn their backs on democracy but don’t know what to put in its place: “What is sure is that they hate elites. They hate complexity. They hate the idea of France being open to the rest of the world. They hate immigration, trade.”

They also seem unfriendly to Jews. Mr. Lévy tells me protesters have made an arm gesture called the quenelle, invented by a comedian named Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, that is widely understood to be anti-Semitic. They have also chanted the word “’Rothschild,’ again and again, as an obsession.” No doubt that is a way of anathematizing Mr. Macron, who worked for Rothschild & Cie Banque a decade ago—but it is also part of the French left’s anti-Semitic argot. “French socialism, when it was born 130 years ago, had two wings,” Mr. Lévy says. One of them, led by Jules Guesde and known as the Intransigents, “was really anti-Semitic. There was this idea, in this half of the party, that the embodiment of capitalism was the Rothschild Bank, and Rothschild was a nickname for the Jews. And this tradition continues, still, today.”

The yellow jackets hate Mr. Macron, BHL says, “because he wants France open to the world, and because he wants a country taking the risk of economic reforms.” More generally, Mr. Macron is “a man of complexity and of ideas, exactly what this sort of movement hates.” He adds a sweeping observation: “One of the characteristics of populism is that even when you are clever, you think that societies have to be governed in an unclever way.”

Mr. Macron’s cardinal sin in the eyes of France’s populists, BHL adds, is that he “is deeply pro-American. Like Sarkozy, he really believes in American exceptionalism.” Mr. Macron “believes that the U.S. is a shining city upon the hill.” Such a love for America, Mr. Lévy says, is itself “exceptional” in France. “Anti-Americanism is an important element of the French ideology. On the right and on the left, France was built upon the hate of America.” If you say you love America, “you are suspected of the worst. So imagine a French president! Being pro-American makes him an enemy of the true, real, well-rooted French people!”

Mr. Macron and French populists likewise have opposite views about the current American president, Mr. Lévy says. Mr. Macron “certainly thinks . . . that the shining city deserves better than Donald Trump.” The extreme left and right see “Trump killing America—and they like that. They like the idea of an American president destroying the values of America. They hate these values. They hate exceptionalism. They hate the idea of spreading democracy. They hated the neoconservative movement. So for them, Trump is a blessing.” In fact, he adds, one of the points on which far left and right agree in France is that “America is the embodiment of evil, not Russia.”

The genius of America, according to Mr. Lévy, “is to believe that it is a new Europe, an improved Europe.” The colonists, he says, read Virgil’s “Aeneid,” whose protagonist, Aeneas, “left his city in flames in order to replant its values on new ground. The Pilgrim Fathers were convinced that London, Amsterdam, and Paris were new Troys, devastated by the flames of intolerance,” so they left on ships and “replanted the values of a devastated Europe on the soil of America.”

Mr. Lévy worries that America’s “Virgilian link” may now be broken. “When did America cut this cord of life that made it a better Europe?” he asks. “Before Trump, for sure. The neoconservatives—even if I was not one of them—still believed in the gesture of Aeneas. They were probably the last pearl yielded up by the Virgilian oyster.”

Mr. Lévy is among the most pro-American of France’s public intellectuals. “I love America,” he says. “I was taught, all my childhood, that without America I would not even exist.” Mr. Trump dismays him, and the U.S. “retreat” from the world fills him with dread. But he says, “Trump is only an epiphenomenon in this regard,” and America began drawing back when President Obama “offered the Middle East to Putin and Iran. Then you had the first breaches in the alliance with Europe.”

With Mr. Trump, BHL says, America’s retreat has become “tragically worse. For this time, the betrayal is generalized. He betrays the Syrian democrats, he betrays the valiant Kurdish fighters, and he delivers the Middle East to Putin. And this creates, for Israel, the most threatening situation there could be.”

In Mr. Lévy’s view, “when Trump says he wants to make America great again, that means he makes it small. He renounces the exceptionalism that is the vocation of his country. It means that America loses the moxie that was always the real source of its authority and its grandeur.” America has erred in the past, he adds, “when it has acted as if its oceans were borders.” It is making that mistake again under Mr. Trump, “with unprecedented proportions.”

What would BHL like the Trump administration to do? “Stand with the Kurds,” he says fiercely. “Stay in Syria. Tell Putin, ‘Hands off Ukraine! Don’t touch the Baltic states!’ Make Erdogan understand that the time of the Ottoman Empire is over. And understand that carrying out America’s democratic and liberal vocation isn’t only an honor, but in America’s best interests.”

The philosopher swirls his teapot, but he’s emptied it. He shrugs: “Anyway, Trump will pass, and America will remain. There is an essence of America, and it is infinitely stronger than any current president. You have people who believe that the Trump moment means the erasing of America. I believe the opposite.”

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the February 9, 2019, print edition.