Last September Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the luxury conglomerate company LVMH, held a little “do” to mark the 60th birthday of the couture house of Dior.
He spared no expense, with Dom Pérignon champagne, caviar, 75 waiters for 25 tables, 14 cooks, 4,000 roses and 8,000 sprigs of lily of the valley (the late Christian Dior’s signature flower). But then the 270 guests were rather special too, including the justice minister Rachida Dati; the interior minister Brice Hortefeux and his wife, dressed by Dior; the mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë; the television news anchor Claire Chazal, also draped in Dior; former foreign minister Hubert Védrine and the parliamentary leader of the governing UMP Party, Jean-François Copé; Elton John and Farah Diba, wife of the late Shah of Iran (1). Also present was the prime minister, François Fillon, who only four days later said: “I am in charge of a bankrupt state. This has got to stop.”
There is nothing new about billionaires indulging in conspicuous consumption. But the social portent of such festivities now reaches beyond the pages of glossy magazines.
The election of President Nicolas Sarkozy heralds a new approach to the exercise of power, completing the merger of several parts of France’s elite: big bosses, opinion-makers and political leaders, right and left, providing they uphold free-market principles. Ideally they should be very rich too.
Arnault is the richest man in France, worth an estimated $21bn in 2006. He is a personal friend of the president, whom he invited to the wedding of his daughter Delphine — a big occasion, with guests including six members of the government of the day, and Copé and Védrine (who is on the LVMH board). A long truck was chartered to transport the bridal dress without creasing it.
Arnault owns a financial daily, La Tribune, which he is selling to buy Les Echos, a more influential paper. The staff of both are against the project, but Sarkozy backs his friend. In 2006 LVMH handed out 1,789,359 stock options, including 450,000 to its boss. The government has recently awarded substantial tax breaks to the wealthy, including Arnault, perhaps as a token of its gratitude for holding down inflation by keeping tight control over pay. Many of those who manufacture Arnault’s luxury goods earn only the minimum wage.
Britain’s Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, asks Arnault for advice, but in France the tycoon is convinced he is seen as a pariah: “The problem for business leaders in France is that the country has difficulty accepting a market economy. I think Marxist ideas still exert an influence. Over the last 20 years their influence has even increased in political discourse” (2).
Arnault must be living in a different France from everybody else. His friend is now president and even the Socialist opposition, following the example of its British counterpart, talks about little else but rehabilitating free-market values, individualism, merit and money. Meanwhile Bernard-Henri Lévy — a neo-liberal, pro-US socialite, astute manager of an immense fortune and established star of intellectual show business — has just published a book (3), which he hopes will establish him as a key Socialist Party (PS) thinker.
The restoration marches on
France resembles a plutocracy; money is all that counts. The government abounds with corporate lawyers. Influential MPs such as Copé make no secret of their ambition to fulfil their public mission while making a fortune in business. With recurrent scandals in the stock market and finance, growing public fascination with billionaires and frequent lobbying, France is turning into another Monaco-style principality.
The recent wedding of Socialist MP Henri Weber was an extravagant celebrity event attended by former leftists, such as Bernard Kouchner, who are now ministers in the rightwing government (4). Jacques Attali, once a special adviser to François Mitterrand, was also on the guest list. He recently accepted Sarkozy’s proposal to chair the newly established Committee for the Liberation of French Growth and is proving a keen advocate of competition and mass distribution. The restoration marches on.
On 13 June 1971, in a speech at the Epinay congress (5), Mitterrand condemned “all the powers of money, money that corrupts, money that buys, money that kills, money that brings ruin and money that rots even the conscience of men”. Now Lévy is suggesting that the PS should organise a congress to make a new start, an “anti-Epinay”. He does not see the corruption, death, ruin and rot in money, but rather “its ability to replace war with trade, closed worlds with open borders. Thanks to [money], negotiations, transactions and compromise take the place of impatience, violence, barter, rapine, arbitrary settlements and fanaticism” (6).
This definition of capital as a rampart against fanaticism is very much in vogue and seems unlikely to upset members of the property-owning classes such as Arnault, Arnaud Lagardère, the man behind the media and aerospace conglomerate of the same name, or François Pinault, owner of the PPR global retailing group. The last two are close friends of Lévy, who has no qualms about tailoring his columns to suit their interests.
Who cares about Lévy? For the past 30 years his fan club has acclaimed his work and the media have made a fuss, yet no one would think of buying one of his books once the public relations barrage subsides. The title of his autobiography, Comédie, suggests that even he sometimes realises the whole process is a farce.
In 1979 Cornelius Castoriadis admitted to being baffled by him: “How can a country with a fine, long-standing culture allow a writer to get away with such nonsense, with critics lauding his work and the reading public obediently lapping it up? No one silences nor imprisons those who point out it is all a sham, yet their words make no difference” (7). He optimistically added: “This piffle will certainly go out of fashion. Much like all contemporary products it has built-in obsolescence.” Nearly 30 years later the piffle is still selling.
This trade in nonsense is doubly revealing of our current malaise. The excesses of Lévy’s prose and its repetition on TV and radio no longer prompt any response. His habitual targets — the “left of the left” and the writers least in thrall to the media –must have given up the struggle. Meanwhile his pro-US, free-market ideas are in tune with those of a growing number of socialist leaders. Diminishing resistance goes hand in hand with greater impact. Any cultural scene, and by extension public debate, that can allow a writer to accuse Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek of being anti-semitic is in trouble. It is strange that any of them should be suspected of taking their cue from a “Nazi thinker” (see “Lévy’s pet hates”). When the left starts taking its inspiration from Lévy, it further proves that it is dead on its feet.
Fans and favours
Lévy’s friends have recently gratified him with favours (interviews with Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, a leading radio personality, and Jean-Marie Colombani, the former editor of Le Monde; an immediate review in the same paper, a huge spread in Paris Match, front-page coverage in Le Nouvel Observateur). But he has recruited new fans, who in their youthful enthusiasm are all the more eager to serve his cause. Nicolas Demorand, on the France Inter radio station, and Philippe Val, the editor of the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo, are no fools; yet when Lévy calls key contemporary leftwing writers fascists, anti-semites or Nazis, they pretend not to notice. After encouraging Lévy to make liberal use of insults and bad language, Demorand let him conclude by saying: “We are the guardians of words on this programme.” Demorand may look forward to a long career.
Following its third consecutive defeat in a presidential election, the PS is tempted to lean even further to the right. Having embraced “realism” in the early 1980s, the idea of “breaking with capitalism” has become meaningless. But media and business leaders keep demanding that the party should go even further, espousing free-market values more absolutely. Last August this pressure led to an outburst from the MP Henri Emmanuelli: “How dare they ask a party that has produced the director of the World Trade Organisation [Pascal Lamy] and very probably the future director of the International Monetary Fund [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] finally to accept the market economy?”
In 1986, 1993 and 2002, the election defeats of the PS pushed the party line a few degrees to the left — a move it could afford, it hardly being possible to blame their electoral misfortunes on having strayed too far to the left. Nor did Ségolène Royal lean far leftwards during last year’s presidential campaign (in which Lévy was closely involved). In the face of Sarkozy’s aggressive rightwing policies, the PS could surely afford to adopt a more militant stance, however superficial it might be in practice.
Encouraged by the Blairist ambitions of several PS leaders, Lévy has wheeled out his media battlewagon to ward off any such eventuality. He plans to dictate to any hypothetical leftwing government the ultimate theoretical basis for future neo-liberal, anti-revolutionary policies. In 1986 Lévy supported the deregulation of broadcasting. In 1995 he condemned striking railway and public transport workers, highlighting the lack of responsibility of the public sector which was “in the process of assuming all the characteristics of what we once called a Soviet-style economy” (8). Two years later he mocked those who “demonise money and all those who deal in it”. Now he has written a book specially for the left, to rid it of its “poisons”. But the worst thing is that people actually listen.
The break with the past Lévy proposes is no different from that promised by Sarkozy. “For reasons related to its past and the history of its national software [sic], the whole of France is resisting free-market principles,” he writes, rather as the president might. He adds: “The question of whether the revolution is possible has given way to another question that is even more disturbing and above all more radical, namely whether the revolution is desirable. The answer to this question has become `No’, clearly `No’.” Pierre Moscovici (who is close to Strauss-Kahn) promptly picked up the ball and wrote: “Bernard-Henri Lévy concludes with an appeal to the melancholic left in opposition to the lyrical left, to a left stripped of its revolutionary Utopia, the `dream that always ends in a nightmare’… That is also my version of the left” (9).
But is Lévy really best placed to suggest solutions to suit most people? His book hardly ever deals with the economy or finance, inequality, relocation of production, occupational hazards or purchasing power. Apart from a 10-page chapter on France’s underprivileged housing estates, there is no mention of social issues. A few ideas, essentially comparing his opponents to fascists, float past, unrelated to their causes. He devotes half a chapter to the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia), pointing out that they “sampled the work of [Charles] Bettelheim, Althusser, Lacan”, but overlooking the fact that the US war in southeast Asia increased their power at least as much as the three French writers did.
‘I write in hotels’
No one can be blamed for their origins, but it is unlikely that Lévy has suffered a great deal from inequality. So why does his manifesto for the left so completely disregard the topic? During an interview in 1984 he explained how he works: “I do not write in cafés, but in hotels. All over the world. In Paris, in a room at the Pont-Royal, number 812, because it looks out over the roofs, commanding a view of the city. Also room 911 at the Georges-V. … My stamping ground reaches from the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I live, to the rue des Saints-Pères, where we are now, or the Récamier, where I often lunch. In the afternoon I like the Twickenham, or otherwise the [café] Flore, and [the flat in] Rue Madame” (10).
Since then his home ground has reached into other enchanted worlds. At the wedding of Pinault junior, in 1996, he “arrived in style, landing on the lawn of the château in a helicopter”. When he married the actress Arielle Dombasle, in 1993, “a plane was chartered to transport guests to La Colombe d’Or, the mythical hotel in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Paris Match obtained exclusive rights to cover the event, with a six-page spread worthy of a royal wedding, not to mention the front page which featured an emotional Arielle in a white dress with a low-cut back, designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel” (11). Guests included Liliane Bettencourt (then the richest person in France), Jack Lang, the former minister, and Alain Carignon, then mayor of Grenoble, as well as the columnist Louis Pauwels and Jean-Luc Lagardère.
Lévy believes we forget how much we owe to capitalism. “We think we are attacking George Soros,” he warns, “but in fact we are murdering Gavroche” (a key figure in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables). Here again Lévy has something in common with Sarkozy, who rolls out a succession of reforms, the better to thwart his adversaries, unable to counter-attack on all sides simultaneously. The writer piles on names, approximations and historical wisecracks. The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquel noted this habit in 1979: “Whether he is dealing with the history of the Bible, Ancient Greece or even contemporary affairs, Lévy displays, in every field, the same alarming ignorance and stunning presumption” (12). Lévy had written that Heinrich Himmler, who actually committed suicide in May 1945, gave evidence six months later at the Nuremberg trial. In another instance he presented François Guizot, a conservative, free-market thinker in Restoration France, as one of the forerunners of the Paris Commune when he had in fact supported its bloody repression.
Many on the left have praised Lévy’s latest book. “The left we have yet to reinvent should draw inspiration from this work. It has a fresh, youthful energy I particularly appreciate,” said Lang (13). Moscovici, Vincent Peillon and Manuel Valls, all of whom are vying for the leadership of the PS, joined in the praise. Valls was one of those to whom Sarkozy offered a cabinet job. This came to nothing, but nevertheless suggests that the two men see more or less eye to eye. Valls subsequently hailed the policy statement of the incoming prime minister, François Fillon, as “on a par with the country’s expectations”, adding that he was prepared to “support the majority provided it listens to us” (the PS). He supports the current reform of special pensions and is calling for a change in the party’s name.
In his book Lévy pays tribute to Valls: “Although many socialists still cling to their socialism much as a repertory actor hangs on to a familiar part, the most lucid among them — Manuel Valls, the MP for the Essonne, springs to mind — know there is no salvation for the left without a clean break with the past, and consequently a change of name.” Valls quickly wrote a review of this “brilliant book” for Les Echos, though he failed to mention that in so doing he was merely returning the author’s compliment. He even singled out for special praise the passage in which he was mentioned (14).
Valls, suspected by some of his fellow travellers of harbouring rightwing sympathies, added: “Those who say this book is simply a celebration of neo-liberal values and a conservative left refuse to admit that it is a sincere attempt at introspection by a writer who quite certainly belongs on the left.” He did acknowledge, though, that Lévy tended to disregard social issues. Not so long ago, anyone admitting, as Lévy did, to being “slightly deaf to social concerns” (15) would have been banished by the left. Such ostracism would now be considered archaic, or “Marxist” as Arnault would say.
Lévy’s political ideas are clear enough. He promotes free-market values and condemns radicalism. While Sarkozy is in power, Lévy manufactures for him a “moral left”, with plenty of emotion and indignation. Not the sort of left that might greatly hinder the government, which, in the words of a former captain of industry, is “methodically dismantling the programme of the National Council of the Resistance” (16).
1. Pour le récit de cette soirée, cf. « L’ère monarchic », Point de vue, Paris, 26 septembre 2007.
2. Challenges, Paris, 13 septembre 2007.
3. France 2, 11 décembre 2006.
4. Ariane Chemin, « La gauche à la noce », Le Monde, 3 octobre 2007.
5. Lire « Les droites au pouvoir », Manière de voir, n° 95, octobre-novembre 2007.
6. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, Grasset, Paris, 2007, p. 190. Sauf indication contraire les citations suivantes de cet auteur sont tirées du même ouvrage.
7. Lire « Cela dure depuis vingt-cinq ans », Le Monde diplomatique, décembre 2003.
8. Cornelius Castoriadis, « L’industrie du vide », Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 9 juillet 1979. C’est Castoriadis qui souligne le « n’importe quoi ».
9. Lire Grégory Rzepski et Antoine Schwartz, « A gauche, l’éternelle tentation centriste », Le Monde diplomatique, juin 2007.
10. « Le PS bouge encore », Libération, Paris, 3 septembre 2007. M. Strauss-Kahn est devenu depuis directeur général du Fonds monétaire international.
11. Le Point, Paris, 2 décembre 1995.
12. Le Point, 29 mars 1997.
13. Pierre Moscovici, « La gauche mélancolique de Bernard-Henri Lévy », Le Monde, 12 octobre 2007.
14. VSD, Paris, 8 novembre 1984.
15. Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 20 juin 1996.
16. Philippe Cohen, BHL, Fayard, Paris, p. 366-367.
17. Lettre du 12 juin 1979 au directeur du Canard enchaîné. Texte intégral sur : www.monde-diplomatique.fr/dossiers/bhl/
18. Paris Match, 11 octobre 2007.
19. Les Echos, Paris, 8 octobre 2007.
20. Libération, Paris, 8 octobre 2007.
21. Denis Kessler, Challenges, Paris, 4 octobre 2007.