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France's Cerebral Celebrity

Bernard-Henri Levy's star power reflects his country's reverence for intellectuals. But his views on America and Israel infuriate many.

July 06, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The most recognizable initials in France today are probably BHL.

In France, as in America, high-powered monograms are few and far between. Americans reserve such iconic status for an elite of presidents (JFK), entertainers (J. Lo) or athletes/defendants (O.J.).

BHL, in contrast, stands for Bernard-Henri Levy: philosopher, author, journalist, filmmaker, diplomatic envoy, world traveler, political activist and all-around celebrity intellectual.

Levy's omnipresence here reaffirms a French tradition that may seem odd in countries where philosophers don't exactly dominate prime time. The French revere intellectual achievement and celebrate "grandeur," a concept that combines excellence and glory. Not only do certain French authors and academics become institutions, Levy is the latest to show that they can be stars too.

And for someone trying to conjure up a mental image for the phrase "French celebrity intellectual," Levy's got the look: dark suit over open-collared white shirt, lean and unshaven, solemnly and sleepily cool. He's also got the address: the stylish Boulevard St. Germain, the paradise of Left Bank intellectuals of yore, a stretch of concrete and cobblestone where flesh-and-blood writers and thinkers tread among the ghosts of Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom Levy used to cross paths at the venerable Cafe de Flore.

During the last 25 years, Levy has written 30 books along with countless essays, columns and articles. His 2001 book, "War, Evil and the End of History," a quintessentially BHL melange of war reportage and erudite "reflections," has just been published in English. His latest book in French, a greatest-hits collection of essays, dispatches and interviews titled "Recidives" (Repeat Offenses), tips the scales at 989 pages.

Levy delights, infuriates and fascinates the French. They bombard him with e-mail praising and cursing his commentaries; someone even posted a sarcastic poem about him on the Internet. They follow his words in the serious Le Point magazine and his pictures in the glitzy Paris-Match. They get excited when they spot him on the street.

Thanks to his ability to stake out turf where highbrow and lowbrow cultures converge, Levy finds himself in the crosshairs of three unauthorized biographers. The voracity of the BHL-ologists stems partly from his swashbuckling personality and lifestyle. Levy inherited a family fortune in a country that is more puritanical about money than morality. His wife is a popular movie actress, Arielle Dombasle; it is his third marriage. He rubs elbows with presidents, Cabinet ministers, tycoons and jet-setters such as actor Alain Delon, who co-starred with Dombasle in a 1997 film directed by Levy. It flopped, to the glee of his foes.

"He's one of what Edith Wharton called the 'happy people of the world,' " said Gilles Hertzog, an old friend and editor of the journal the Rule of the Game, which he co-founded with Levy in 1989. "He's got a great life, he's rich, he's married to an actress, he knows everybody. It creates a kind of exasperation for people for whom life is tough. To see a guy who doesn't need to do what he does, like the trips to war zones, it seems to them like a provocation. A kind of super-luxury dandyism."

Beyond the accusations of narcissism and self-indulgence, though, there's another reason for the resentment. Levy goes against the grain of certain stereotypes and prevailing ideologies. He's an ardent foe of anti-Americanism, one of the driving forces of intellectual activity in a Europe where it has become fashionable to trash America for such things as the death penalty, fast food and Hollywood movies.

Although Levy criticizes President Bush and the Iraq war, he still sees the United States as "a model of democracy, an exemplary democracy."

"Anti-Americanism is a horror," Levy said during a recent interview in his study, where books lined the walls and were stacked on the floor. "It is a magnet of the worst. In the entire world, and in France in particular, everything that is the worst in people's heads comes together around anti-Americanism: racism, nationalism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism."

Levy, who is Jewish, also breaks ranks with the European intelligentsia when it comes to Israel. Europe's political and media elite are resolutely pro-Palestinian, he said, and tend to portray Israel, although it is a rare democracy in a region full of strongman regimes, as a dangerous partner of a supposedly imperialistic United States.

A fixation with the plight of the Palestinians, Levy asserts, diverts attention from suffering in forsaken corners of the world such as Sudan, where he wrote three years ago about combat in the Darfur region that has now become a focus of international concern about slaughter and famine.

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