Eye on France: Why Bernard-Henri Lévy won't wear a yellow vest

Bernard-Henri Lévy in our studios at RFI.
Bernard-Henri Lévy in our studios at RFI. © RFI/Sébastien Bonijol

The yellow vest protest movement is in serious trouble! That's because the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is on their case, and, in today’s financial paper Les Echos, he’s pontificating about the unfortunates currently getting cold, damp and depressed on the nation’s roundabouts and roadblocks.


Bernard-Henri has no doubt about the ultimate value of the movement: bending the knee to the yellow vests is finally, he says, grotesque.

Bernard-Henri is in the news at the moment because he’s about to launch a 22-date speaking tour, visiting European cities to preach about the need for a new vision of the Old Continent’s long-term future. He kicks off in Milan in March.

He’s doing it, he says, because in France and several of the neighbours, the rise of populism poses a dangerous threat to the very idea of democracy. Bernard-Henri Lévy plans to save us from the nastier fringes of the far right.

That’s good. Against those guys, we could all do with some help. But what's his problem with the poor old gilets jaunes? He’s been against them from the start.

A social movement going in the wrong direction

“It’s a real social movement,” Bernard-Henri Lévy admits, “but it’s one driven by sad, mortifying and destructive forces.”

This, he says, is frequent in contemporary history. Genuine popular revolts based on real problems and suffering finally find expression in a language and in forms of action which are completely anti-democratic.

That’s when dudes like Bernard-Henri show their true worth. They stand up and ask to be counted. No enthusiastic drifting along with the masses for them.

They are among the few with the courage to say “yes” to social reform, “yes” to anything that leads to greater equality, but “no” when the talk turns to marching on the presidential residence at the Elysée Palace, or vandalising public property, or attacking police officers.

And the worst of all, according to Bernard-Henri, is the astonishing level of public forgiveness which has greeted such acts of violence.

Yellow vests and other uniforms of terrorism

And that form of acceptance of what is simply criminality is, Ben further explains, because the yellow vests are fundamentally a terrorist movement.

This is another frequently remarked element of contemporary history: those who represent the “people” or, worse, the “proletariat,” come together briefly to demand to be heard. Well, they got heard.

The president said it on national television. There’s going to be an endless bloody debate. And what happens? The yellow vests, as understood by Bernard-Henri, say “No, that’s not what we really asked for. In fact, we want more, or less, but certainly different.” He thinks that the yellow vest are a historical regression by comparison with the great workers’ movements of the past.

So what does intellectual Ben the writer think of the widening social gap which separates him and the rest of the French élite from the rest of the Republic?

It’s an exaggeration. He tells the interviewer at Les Echos that, in fact, the so-called élites actually got listened to. Because they were suggesting solutions. He can think of no similar movement in which bosses, state officials and others in positions of power made such a genuine effort to bridge a class divide, heal the social wounds.

Damn the demagogues!

The real bad guys were the extremists behind Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and others who called for murder and mayhem.

The options were simple: there were those who tried to lead the public energy and anger in a legal and reasonable way, so as to improve the lot of those who really need the help. And there were the others who, without caring a damn for the real needs of the protestors, simply used the anger to promote their own interests.

And it will probably come as no surprise that Bernard-Henri Lévy is against any form of citizens’ referendum.

Politics is too complicated, he says. Any question which can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no” on a ballot paper is not worth asking in the first place. Anyone who believes otherwise is either an idiot or a criminal. Look, he say, at what happened with Brexit.

The man, you have to admit, has a point.

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