Bernard-Henri Lévy on ‘The French Think Too Much’

Few of France's intellectuals cogitate with such élan as Bernard-Henri Lévy, a nouveau philosophe known worldwide for his journalism and his passionate involvement in humanitarian causes, as well as for such works as "The French Ideology." Among his recent books published in English are "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" (Melville House) and "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" (Random House). NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey asked Lévy a few questions by e-mail about the proposition that the French spend too much time deliberating and too little acting. His responses:

NEWSWEEK: Do the French think too much, as French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde suggested?
Bernard-Henri Lévy:
I loathe that phrase. I loathe that slip of the tongue that allowed Minister Lagarde to pronounce those words. I loathe anti-intellectualism. I loathe Poujadism [a French version of rabble-rousing right-wing populism]. And we are, here, facing a blatant case of Poujadism and [anti]-intellectualism. So that's what I think of this business.

Is there, in fact, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Lagarde have suggested, a conflict between thought and action? Sarkozy likes to portray himself as nonintellectual. But is he anti-intellectual?
Certainly not. There's no conflict. I wrote an essay in The New York Times about Sarkozy which I started by describing this silent esteem, this reciprocal fascination, this amorous competition that they have in France, these men of action and of letters. That is what France is: the country where great writers are men of action manqués, and where great politicians are writers who didn't make it. That's much more interesting than this "conflict" that we're talking about today.

It's often said that the great era of the French intellectual began with the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, when the novelist Emile Zola led the public defense of a Jewish army officer accused of treason. Did it end, essentially, with the collapse of communism in the 1990s? Where do French intellectuals find themselves today?
It's more complicated than that. The real decline of intellectuals in France begins with cultural relativism, which is to say with the decline of the idea of a Truth that ought to be the object of a specific, intense and absolute desire. That's what "intellectual" meant at the moment of the Dreyfus Affair: the one who intercedes between the City [in this sense the world apart from the realm of the intellect] and the idea of truth. As this idea is deconstructed or relativized, it's true that the concept of the intellectual loses its relevance and its importance. So then the debate becomes, should we rejoice about that loss, or deplore it? Do we say "good and good riddance," or do we feel nostalgic for the classic figure of the intellectual? I am, clearly and definitively, in the second category.

Are French intellectuals alive and well as a class?
As a class, certainly not. An intellectual is always alone.

It was once famously but erroneously said by F. Scott Fitzgerald that there are no second acts in American lives. In fact, Americans are constantly reinventing themselves. But might it be true that there are no second acts in France?
No. Quite the contrary: in France you never die. You never disappear. Images build up a powerful inertia. There are people who manage to live an entire life based on one image, one photograph, one word, one moment of television. It's too much.

Is there an inclination these days, as some critics suggest, toward a way of thinking called "la pensée unique," where there are many variations on the same ideas, but not much progress toward new ones?
No. I think that France, on the contrary, is an ideological laboratory brimming with ideas.