WORLDPOST

Anti-Semitism in France, the Responsibility to Protect, Timorous Europe, and Obama's New Isolationism

01/05/2014 05:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 07, 2014

An interview with me that appeared in today's edition of the French daily Le Parisien focuses on anti-Semitism in France -- a hot topic at the moment because Interior Minister Manuel Valls has announced his intention to ban performances by comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. The interview also touches on the French intervention in the Central African Republic and the new form of isolationism practiced by Barack Obama and the European Union.

Interview conducted by Frédéric Gerschel. Questions and answers translated by Steven Kennedy.

Frédéric Gerschel: Is Manuel Valls right to seek to ban Dieudonné's shows?

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Absolutely. I don't understand why anyone even sees the need for debate. What you're calling Dieudonné's shows aren't shows but meetings. Meetings at which the speakers preach denial of the Holocaust, hate for Jews, and rationalization of crimes against humanity -- all things that French law condemns. There comes a moment when, faced with such acts, faced with repeated slaps in the face of the Republic, it is the duty of the authorities to say "enough!" That's what Valls has done, and he's right.

What do you say when a certain humorist asks, "If you censor Dieudonné today, what's to stop another government from censoring me tomorrow?"

I say that he is confusing two things in an unusual and dangerous way. Because the work of a humorist whose freedom of expression and, by extension, freedom to be provocative, is indeed sacred has absolutely nothing in common with the machinations of a neo-Nazi agitator engaged in an open campaign on themes that are not opinions but crimes. The two individuals are not in the same business. There is a fundamental difference in what they're saying. And, short of imagining Madame Le Pen in power, there isn't a serious judge in France who would say: "Having convicted X for defiling the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, I will now convict Y for making fun of Minister Smith and Minister Jones."

Some (Nicolas Anelka, Tony Parker) have given Dieudonné's reverse Nazi salute, known as the "quenelle," the benefit of the doubt, saying that in their eyes it was a gesture of defiance against the establishment. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt?

Tony Parker, yes. The incident occurred five years ago, and he has explained himself. Anelka is a different matter. He knows that in giving the quenelle he is supporting an agitator whose intention, at bottom, is to stick his salute, and I quote, "up the ass of Zionism." He knows that for Dieudonné and his accomplice, Alain Soral, "anti-establishment" means "the Jews who run the world." And he knows that in supporting that, he is promoting the oldest anti-Semitic clichés, which are also the most inflammatory. England's Football Association doesn't really have a choice. Either it comes down hard on the "anti-establishment" billionaire, or once again we will see, as we did in the 2000s, an epidemic of Nazi slogans and gestures in English football stadiums.

Generally, do you believe that racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise in France?

With regard to racism, obviously. Look how slow the politicians were to react to the insults hurled at the Keeper of the Seals. With regard to anti-Semitism, I'm afraid the situation may not be any better, and I'm shocked to hear more and more young Jews wondering if they're still welcome in a country that tolerates Nazi salutes in front of the deportation memorial or the Jewish school in Toulouse, where four children were killed because they were Jewish. We have to stop this spiral of hate. Above and beyond the "shows," we have to call out the hosts of the websites of Dieudonné and Soral. And, because all this is also a profitable little business with trademarks and petty disputes among rights holders, we also have to hit these guys in their wallets.

Was France right to intervene in the Central African Republic? Did we fail to appreciate the depth of the hatred between the two communities?

On the contrary. It is because the administration did not underestimate the depth of enmity that France intervened. It was because the administration knew that the country was in a "pregenocidal" situation that it assumed, once again, the responsibility to protect that is enshrined in international law. It is no surprise that the conflict did not cease immediately after the intervention. If, in April 1994, instead of putting our heads in the sand, we had intervened in Rwanda, there would have been some deaths, of course. For months there would have been clashes, dirty tricks. But not a million dead. Not the fourth-largest genocide of the 20th century. The intervention is a form of fighting racism in that it rejects the monstrous fatalism that allows us to say, "genocide in Africa, well, that's only to be expected, it's not so serious," and so on.

Why is the European Union not present in Bangui?

Because it's not present anywhere. Because it's a headless body, a decapitated Leviathan, a machine with no soul and no identity that is incapable of the smallest political act. Look at Ukraine. Look at our pathetic reactions to the fervor of European sentiment shown by the demonstrators in Kiev. For them, Europe means immense hope. Here in the West, our main concern is not to tick off Mr. Putin, the planet's new Big Boss, whose hand controls the flow of the gas on which we depend to stay warm in winter.

Two and a half years since war broke out in Syria the moderate opposition appears exhausted. Who should we be supporting today?

The same people. The moderate opposition. In other words, Muslims hostile to Al Qaeda and Christian minorities that refuse to be taken hostage by the regime. It's getting more and more difficult, obviously, because for months we've been doing exactly the opposite and have saved the regime's skin while also enabling Al Qaeda to increase its presence. In the last analysis, Syria will be the greatest political and moral failing of Obama's presidency. On August 31, when he in effect backed away from strikes in exchange for inspections of Assad's chemical arsenals, he assumed an enormous historical responsibility. Incidentally, those arsenals were supposed to have been dismantled by December 31. How far have we gotten? And why, after the flurry of the first few days, has the press ceased to cover this story?

What struck you most about François Hollande's New Year's address?

The firm position he took on the rise of anti-Semitism and racism.

Can he come back in 2014?

Yes, if he doesn't delay in spelling out the "initiatives" for "the future of Europe" that he has announced. Because the "France alone" of Maurras is over. But a Europe ashamed and disgraced, a Europe discounted, a Europe in name but not in deed, a Europe afraid of its own shadow -- that's a sure path to decline for all of the nations that make it up. On this point, the outcome of the next elections will be critical. Either we give new impetus to the European dream or we yield to the nationalists on the right and left and drop out of history for good while simultaneously plunging deeper into unemployment and, perhaps, poverty.

Interview conducted by Frédéric Gerschel. Questions and answers translated by Steven Kennedy.