Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 14 News List

French journalists build hero Levy up to shoot him down

Bernard-Henri Levy would seem to have it all, but the backlash against the rich philosopher and media pundit is reaching a fever

AFP , Paris

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, aka BHL, during a TV show in Paris.


In France the cult of the personality and the cult of the intellectual have met for a quarter of a century in the form of a dashing highbrow with raven hair and a reputation as the country's leading "philosophe."

Bernard-Henri Levy is one of a handful of public figures who are so famous they are known only by their initials.

Drooled over by the people press and courted by the qualities, friend of politicians and tycoons, BHL is the Beau Brummel of Belles Lettres -- one day pontificating on a TV panel, the next hobnobbing with Afghan guerrillas, a third posing in trademark white shirt by a Riviera pool.

For years he has been part of the untouchable elite. Fame, looks, brains, money and a glamorous actress wife all made him a fixed star in the constellation of the Paris nomenklatura. But now, with a strange suddenness, tongues have started wagging.

In the coming months a total of five books are due out which seek to debunk the BHL "myth". Not only is he a vain intellectual imposter, they claim, he is also the mastermind of a network of financial and media interests whose prime function is his own self-promotion.

The first salvo in the campaign has been by fired by two journalists, Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte, whose book -- Le B.A.BA du BHL -- seeks to expose the vapidity of a society that would allow BHL to reach such heights.

For them the starting point is BHL's best-selling book last year on the murder by Islamic extremists in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Who killed Daniel Pearl? has been much-criticized outside France for its tasteless style, lack of research and eccentric conclusions. The British writer William Dalrymple said that "Levy's misuse of evidence ... is revealing of his general method: if proof does not exist, he writes as if it did."

But in France the book has sold well over 100,000 copies and reviews were almost unanimously favorable.

For Lindgaard and de la Porte the book's success is evidence of France's intellectual collapse, with the replacement of serious analysis by a form of instantaneous media-thought of which BHL is the supreme and highly telegenic proponent.

"He is the prime embodiment of the deep crisis in our society -- where proven lies have the same value as truth, where simplistic ideas ... prevail over real intelligence, and where connivance and networks of friendship count for more than genuine scholarship," they write.

Levy was born in Algeria in 1948 and studied at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. At 28 he published Barbarism with a Human Face and after appearing on the discussion program Apostrophes was hailed as the leader of a new generation of so-called "New Philosophers."

Since then he has written some 30 books and innumerable opinion columns, made two films and espoused a series of causes.

He publicized the plight of the Bosnian Muslims, defended the Algerian government against charges it was complicit in massacres, and two years ago was sent by President Jacques Chirac on a special mission to Afghanistan. Recently he has written impassioned attacks on militant Islam.

Throughout he has maintained a glamorous lifestyle made possible by the inheritance of a fortune from his late father's lumber business. Said to be worth some 150 million euros (US$200 million), he has a luxury apartment in Saint-Germain, a hideaway on the Cote d'Azur and two large properties in Morocco.

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