Is Bernard-Henri Lévy a Pretentious Fool?

“I’m not interested in that pretentious little fool.” The “pretentious little fool” [petit con prétentieux] in question: none other than French literary star Bernard-Henri Lévy. And the author of the phrase: none other than “Special Advisor” to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and presidential speechwriter Henri Guaino. Guaino made the remark yesterday to the French news site Rue89 and he took the trouble to specify: “you can print that.” He was responding to remarks made earlier in the day by Lévy — or “BHL,” as he is commonly known in France — on the radio station France Inter.

In his interview with France Inter, Lévy repeatedly referred to Guaino as a “racist” on account of a speech delivered by Nicolas Sarkozy in Dakar in July (and discussed in this earlier WPR report) and accused him of being a representative of the “extreme right” in France. “It’s [Guaino] who prepared that horrid [ignoble] speech,” Lévy charged:

where it’s said that if Africa has not developed, it’s because they [Africans] are not part of history and that they are victims of the lethargy of history. To say that is disgusting. To say that . . . while completely effacing colonialism — the destruction of the country by that shameful epoch that was the epoch of colonialism — that’s the work of Guaino and that is racism.

What Nicolas Sarkozy said in his speech was more exactly this:

The drama of Africa is that the African has not sufficiently become part of history. The African peasant has lived for millennia according to the seasons and his ideal is to live in harmony with nature. He only knows the eternal renewal of time. . . .

Within this worldview [imaginaire], everything is always renewed. There is no place for the human adventure or for the idea of progress. . . .

The individual never throws himself into the future. He never has the idea of leaving behind this repetition and inventing a new destiny for himself.

The problem of Africa — and allow me, as a friend of Africa, to say it — is to be found here. The challenge for Africa is to enter more into history: it is to find within itself the energy, the force, the desire and the will to hear and to become one with its own history.

Racist? The reader can judge. But one can well wonder whether Bernard-Henri Lévy in fact read or listened to the speech, as opposed to just reading certain press reports about it. For far from “completely effacing colonialism,” roughly a third of the speech is devoted to a detailed catalogue of the various “wrongs” [torts] of colonialism and its enduring effects. “The colonizer came, he took, he used, he exploited,” Sarkozy said, “He plundered resources and riches that did not belong to him. He robbed the colonized of his personality, of his freedom, of his land, of the fruit of his labor.” “No one,” Sarkozy concluded, “can act as if this history did not happen.”

“I take responsibility for the Dakar speech,” Henri Guaino told Rue89, “line for line, word for word, and to the last comma. But the speech is that of the President of the Republic: if he did not want to deliver it, he would not have done so.” “There have always been morons,” he concluded, referring to the remarks of Lévy, “What do you want me to say in response to so much stupidity?”

On account of his vociferous “pro-Americanism,” Lévy has become something of a darling of conservative circles in the United States in recent years. But it is not unlikely that they would want to agree with Guaino’s assessment of “BHL” if they knew more about him. Take, for instance, an interview with Lévy that appeared in the Spanish daily El Mundo over the weekend (Oct. 6). Asked about the importance of the 2008 American elections, Lévy responded:

The United States is emerging from a critical period, because George Bush has been a disastrous president. One of the worst in history. In recent years, anti-Americanism has increased because he has encouraged it. It is crucial that Bush goes.

Said as if he might not. “It is vitally important that there be a democratic wave again,” Lévy added.

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