Bernard-Henri Lévy: Paris Attackers Are Not Les Misérables

In interview to Haaretz, French philosopher says failed integration is not impetus for jihadism, and claims offensive must destroy, not contain, ISIS: 'They tried to make Israel live in fear. Now it’s France under attack.'

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in Geneva on April 20, 2009.
AP

Bernard-Henri Lévy spent Paris’ black night in the streets of the City of Light. “I felt that this was a frightened city,” the public intellectual told Haaretz. “A city under siege. A city that is now afraid that it will be attacked again soon, but also a city that has started to resist.”

Like so many Parisians, Lévy has a friend who found himself in the line of fire, Yann Revol, a press photographer. Revol was at the Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, where, along with the Le Carillon bar next door, 15 people were killed.

People gather in front of a makeshift memorial outside Le Carillon cafe, on November 16, 2015 at the in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks.
AFP

“I stayed in touch with him by phone until the rescue services arrived,” Lévy says. “He hid in the restaurant kitchen, wounded. I realized immediately that Paris was at war.”

Lévy tweeted that night: “Charlie Hebdo was a symbol. Now it’s war,” a statement that reverberated in the words of President Francois Hollande, who in his speech that night described the acts in precisely the same way: "war."

Later in the week Lévy flew to New York; from there he spoke to Haaretz to discuss the war that France is experiencing at the moment — to its astonishment for the most part. In France after November 13, just as in the United States after September 11, the definition “war” implies heavy ramifications for the foreign and domestic policy of the country under attack.

The first glance turns inward — how far will France go with its state of emergency that has been extended for three months? There’s also the question of changes to the constitution that would mean a draconian restriction of certain civil rights.

“I don’t think that at present the balance between liberty and security is changing dramatically in France,” he says. For Lévy, the change “is less than what happened in the United States with the legislation of the Patriot Act, and less than what happened in France during the Algerian war.”

“I think the lessons from the past that have been learned by the government and the emergency steps now being taken are being presented cautiously ... that the borderline is very narrow and we have to do everything possible to avoid crossing it,” he says.

Soldiers operate in St. Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, Wednesday, November 18, 2015.
AP Photo/Francois Mori

“In the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush there were no such hesitations, certainly not to the same degree, nor were there in France in the late ‘50s during the Algerian war.”

Still, when you listen to Hollande’s speech there’s a feeling he’s willing to go quite far in curtailing liberty; for example, on the question of administrative house arrests.

“Are we in a time of war or not? If the answer is in the affirmative, as I’ve been convinced from the first moment, it’s taking place both on the domestic and foreign front. After all, Churchill imprisoned thousands because he was convinced there was a danger they would collaborate with the enemy during World War II. Today we’re not talking about imprisonment but house arrest for a certain number of those seen as protagonists in this war.”

And what about the immediate political danger, the expected rise of National Front leader Marine Le Pen?

“She will get stronger now of course. But I think there’s still a large majority of French people who know that she hasn’t changed and that with the new garb she still represents the line of thought of her father, Jean Marie Le Pen. In an interview with Haaretz four years ago she refused to condemn the crimes of the Vichy government and said ‘I don’t speak ill of my country.’ The French know all that. I think she’s quite close to her [electoral] glass ceiling.”

The question of the far right is of course not divorced from Muslims’ place in the renewal of French society. All the terrorists who have been identified were disciples of extremist Islam. To what extent should France do more to guarantee better integration of its Muslim citizens into society?

“Of course the problem of integration hasn’t been solved and of course it must be solved. But I’m not willing to accept the link implied by your question between it and jihadism. Those who perpetrated the attacks in France are not les misérables. They aren’t people who suffered from integration.

“It’s important to oppose this connection, this correlation, because they’re mistaken,” Lévy adds, mentioning a leader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, who was far from being an ostracized immigrant in Germany where he studied, and the Islamic State’s “Jihadi John.”

ISIS fighters in Raqqa, Syria.
AP

The Libyan connection

The key challenge outside France is of course to destroy the capabilities of the Islamic State, which has changed from a gang of fighters in vans far out of sight to France’s number-one headache. Lévy has been involved more than any other European intellectual in recent years in a real war, alongside former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He helped the Libyan rebels receive military support from France, which ended with the killing of dictator Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Lévy visited Libya and the rebels a number of times and was their most vocal supporter in the West — the rebels who thanks in part to France’s airstrikes became Libya’s masters. He’s in no rush to suggest sending massive ground forces into Syria; the West’s greater determination may be sufficient.

“The power of ISIS is perceived as far more significant than it really is on the ground. There’s no need for a huge deployment of troops to handle it. But you have to recognize the fact that there’s a need for French and other special forces on the ground, and maybe even to reinforce them. Special forces are on the ground already; I think they’re insufficient.”

When you suggest such a solution, aren’t you supporting a new war without taking into account the outcome of the war in Libya that you supported so loudly?

“The outcome of the war in Libya is not as catastrophic as some people claim. I think that Western military intervention in Libya was what prevented it from becoming a Syria. What created ISIS? It was the American withdrawal from Iraq and the policy of nonintervention in Syria. It wasn’t the operations in Libya.”

Does Libya function today in a way that lets its people live normal lives, more or less?

“No. But not in Gadhafi’s time either. The uprisings in the Arab world weren’t initiated by the West. It wasn’t foreign agents who invented them. They simply happened. When the people rebel there’s no calculation that can be made for or against. When it happens the question is whether you’re on the side of the people or on the side of the dictator.

“When you support a dictator the result is Syria; in other words, chaos, as well as ISIS and over 170,000 dead. When you support the people who are rebelling, as was the case in Libya, the result is the same chaos, let’s admit it. But there’s almost no ISIS except in two isolated centers, and mainly there’s no bloodbath in Libya similar to that taking place in Syria. That’s the real question.”

So I ask what has to be done in Syria, after the West dithered. Lévy, true to his long friendship with the Kurds, believes they’ll be the key to a solution if the West helps them — on the ground as well.

“We have to treat the point of the cancer: the recruitment camps, the training camps, the command centers. How should that be done? There are fighters on the ground, mainly Kurds with Shi’ite and perhaps Sunni backup. The second force is the airstrikes by coalition planes, and the third is fighters from the coalition countries who will come to the aid of the Kurds.”

Quite a few people in French politics oppose that. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Left Party, says the West has taken on too many wars. His words imply that if France doesn’t fight the Islamic State on its own territory maybe it will attain quiet. Is that a common attitude in France?

“Of course. But it’s an almost-racist argument — in the style of ‘Oh, how nice jihadism would be if it only harmed Arabs.’ After all, that’s the meaning of those words: ‘Let’s make sure jihadism only harms Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Arab world.’ I think that’s a mistake of course. Even if we compromise with this religious fanaticism it will attack us in the same way. But the heart of the argument is basically ‘if only they’d attack only Arabs. And Israel.’ It’s completely intolerable to think that way.”

Feeble anti-Semites

But Lévy doesn’t only draw fire because of his involvement in Libya and his constant presence in France’s intellectual political debate. Sometimes the criticism is harsh, even very harsh. Recently there was also an anti-Semitic demonstration by a far-right movement that demanded that the authorities “revoke his French citizenship and extradite him to Israel.” They added violent and anti-Semitic statements for good measure.

Lévy was shocked when the legal authorities didn’t respond, but insists that ideologically people like that don’t really bother him. “It was mainly a demonstration of stupidity; the anti-Semites are weaker than the Jews,” he says.

“As opposed to what can be read sometimes in the newspapers in Israel or the United States, the number of anti-Semites may be increasing in recent years, but their power is shrinking. We’re confronting extraordinarily stupid people.”

Are you optimistic or pessimistic for France?

“I’m pessimistic in the sense that I realize there may be more attacks of this kind. And still I’m optimistic. National unity isn’t important.

“What’s important is the strength of civil society — people who believe that it’s an act of résistance to go to a restaurant or a café, that Le Petit Cambodge and the other restaurants in the neighborhood that was attacked are full as far as I know, and that people showing solidarity stand in line for hours to donate blood. At the end of the road the jihadis will lose; that’s why I’m optimistic.”

I ask him if Jews can be optimistic. Does France remain a place where a Jew can see his future? Lévy, who’s always very insistent on his Jewish identity, doesn’t hesitate.

“Definitely. Every time a Jew leaves France for reasons of profound Zionist conviction, I say ‘very good, that strengthens Israel.’ But when he leaves France only because of fear I think that this Jew is wrong. Because France isn’t in the ‘30s once again. The anti-Semites are much weaker than they were then,” he says.

“In the 1930s when you said ‘anti-Semite’ the names that came up included some very important writers. Sometimes the greatest ones: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paul Morand. Who are they today? Crne rasé Alain Soral? An idiot like Dieudonné? Ignoramuses like the fascist far right that demanded that I be expelled from France? I think this changes everything.”

Lévy and others will present these ideas at length in his new book “La génie du judaisme” (to be published by Grasset in France and Random House in the United States). He’ll be reading selections on December 2 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. So why is he doing a pre-debut for the book in Israel?

“I made the decision at the height of what they called by a name I don’t like: the knife intifada. For me it’s a natural way of expressing solidarity with the Israelis. I was shocked by the banalization of this phenomenon, the way everywhere in the world, including in France, there were people who felt that it’s part of the routine of war,” he says.

“That shocked me so much that I looked for a way to express my solidarity with the Israelis. I proposed the evening of readings to the Tel Aviv Museum and they accepted the idea. Entry will be free of charge; that’s very important to me, so that anyone who so desires will be able to come and listen.”

One could almost think that overnight Tel Aviv has become safer than Paris.

“They tried to make Israel live in fear. Now it’s France under attack.”