Rick Salutin
Most annoying of 2015: Bernard-Henri Levy

| January 1, 2016
Photo: Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Itzik Edri. Wikimedia.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

As I pondered my choice for Annoying Person of the Year, Bernard-Henri Levy kept popping into mind. He's no Trump, but luckily we're allowed to be annoyed beyond reason by people who aren't objectively all that significant. After all, annoyance is a relationship: we get out of it what we put into it.

BHL (as in JFK, Y2K etc -- he loves the label --isn't that annoying?) may not instantly register with you but his photo could ring a bell. That's because he pops up often, and always unnecessarily. Most recently he was in the streets of Paris after the attacks, effectively welcoming the CNN commando unit that parachuted in, as they now do during all network-certified catastrophes. He actually seemed as much munchkin as annoyance. Not that he's smallish; he isn't. But he's highly festooned, irritatingly cute — and he pops up.

He first flamed into public prominence in the 1970s as one of France's New Philosophers. They announced --like adding a new franchise to the league -- that they weren't just abandoning but counterattacking their former Marxism and joining the other side: supporting counter-revolution in Nicaragua, the invasion of Iraq, anti-Islamism. BHL since then has continued philosophizing — it engenders celebrity there, like hockey here — and branched out (he has family money) into film, journalism, theatre.

But he's been uniquely active in a special category: the meddler. He'd probably prefer "public intellectual" but his real interest has been cultivating national leaders and needling them, he claims, into virtuous action. That's where the pop-ups proliferate: in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Gaza, Libya. Followed by books, films etc., on how he made the magic happen.

While meddling in Bosnia's war in the 1990s, he had France's president send a jet to fly him to his wedding in Provence. "Mitterrand owed me," he said. "I did so much for the French government." (He sounded Trumpian, avant la lettre.) He was especially tight with Nicolas Sarkozy, and took credit for 2011's overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya by pointing Sarkozy to a rebel leader during what the Guardian called a "phone call to arms." He has everyone's cell, of course. After screening his film about that prologue to Libya's current chaos, he was asked why he put himself at its very centre. He said it's like Michael Moore's place in his films. Well, not exactly. Moore mocks himself to make serious points. BHL takes himself super seriously and ends up being awfully funny.

Side-splitting even. In a 2010 book, he solemnly cited a French philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, who is indeed famous, as a satirical invention. He's the founder of Botulisme, get it? The ridicule ran right off Levy's back.

Inevitably, this year, he interjected himself into the Paris attacks. He wrote a piece reprinted in the Globe that starts, "So it's war." I thought, Yes! That's it! Almost the very words with which Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup (1933) declares Fredonia's going to war, followed by a rollicking number with banjos and (non-phone) calls to arms. To war, to war, to war we're gonna go/ With a hi-de, hi-de, hi-de, hi-de ho.

BHL is Firefly, meddling loopily in international affairs. See him there on the Parisian street with CNN: Christiane Amanpour in the Margaret Dumont role ("Oooh M. Firefly"), Anderson Cooper as Harpo, maybe John Berman as Zeppo, the one who isn't funny. (Full disclosure: I tend to hallucinate Groucho frequently; an earlier case was Karlheinz Schreiber).

It's tempting to do a full bore, line by line, explication du texte of that article. It has pomposity ("Principle number 1: Dare to utter the terrible word 'war'."); sucking up ("France's government, including the president, understands."); name-dropping ("As Carl Schmitt taught"); verbosity ("But that implies two things, or rather three"); false modesty ("It is a tricky undertaking"); and more pomposity ("I come now to the heart of the matter.")

But mostly, it's false, because this isn't war. The "enemy" has no air force, navy or transport. It can at best make bloody minor raids into "our" territory. It's no, as they say, existential threat. Calling it war doesn't make it so, though it can sow confusion and fear, and make the situation worse by eliciting overreactions — as has in fact happened when serious people make the claim and others take it seriously. Fortunately, in this case, it's only BHL yapping again.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Itzik Edri. Wikimedia.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.