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On Wednesday 26th April, The Henry Jackson Society and Lord Risby welcomed Bernard-Henri Lévy, French philosopher, journalist and writer, who came to talk about his recent documentary, The Battle of Mosul, and his thoughts on the upcoming second round of the French presidential elections. The Battle of Mosul features the intense work of Iraqi security services in their effort to oust Islamic State from their ‘Second City’ and main bastion in Iraq. The first round of the French presidential elections saw the candidates of France’s political establishment collapse to 3rd and 5th place, with a new centre candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and the far-right, Marnie Le Pen, making their way to the second round. There was a lot for Lévy to discuss.
The lecture begun by Lévy recounting his time in Iraq, what motivated him to travel there and what he thought about the conflict against ISIS. He stated that after the ISIS-inspired 2015 Paris terror attacks he was moved to go to the centre of command of ISIS and determine how the war for “freedom, civilisation and against barbarity” was proceeding. Lévy stated that he takes no pleasure in warfare but recognises the distinction between just and unjust conflicts. Citing the work of St Thomas Augustine, a 13th century Italian priest and philosopher, who laid the groundwork for the ‘just war’ theory, to justify his position. During his time in Iraq he saw terrible things committed by both sides but he argued that the battle against extremism and fascism is an obligation and a necessity that makes the war against ISIS a just war. “We have to fight for freedom” Lévy determined. Lévy also recounted how he had been to Iraq before for a previous documentary film, but on that occasion he had been with the Kurds. He said that they were a beacon of hope in the Middle East, a place where democratic Islam has taken place. Lévy argues that the Kurds are not only both committed liberals, pro-West and pro-Israel, but also pious people. The Kurdish people give him hope that the Middle East can combine religion and democracy and eventually find peace.
Moving on to the French election Lévy said that the contest was passionate but disgusting for three reasons. First, he asserts that French politics has turned into a reality show and voters are no longer concerned with policies – just personalities. The era of “post-truth” politics has come to France from the US. Second, it has been a “painful revolution”, we have seen lots of political “beheadings” as mainstream politicians like Sarkozy, Holland, Juppe, Valls and Fillion were beaten at the polls or did not even make it to the election. The only way to win this election was to be “anti-system”, if you were not or didn’t even pretend to be you were not going to make it very far. Thirdly, just as we have seen across the democratic world the political centre-left is collapsing. In France, for the past thirty years the left has been seen as the side of progress and pragmatism. When Le Pen’s father made it to the second round against the centre-right Chirac, the left rallied around Chirac with a great sense of republicanism (the national sense of duty to France rather than party) and Le Pen’s father was crushed, only gaining 18% of the vote share.
Now, with the centre-left in decline, the far-left has abandoned republicanism and Menchelon has refused to endorse Macron. Lévy states that this move exemplifies a bitterness that lingers within many left wing parties in democracies these days, ‘it’s either my candidate or I don’t care’. Lévy notes that this happened in Germany in the 1920s when the communists refused to endorse the left. Lévy said it would be an exaggeration to compare the two situations, but he believes that it is a huge mistake for Menchelon to do the same and not endorse Macron. He warns that if Menchelon does not change his mind soon we could see a Le Pen victory. Le Pen has a solid voter base whereas Macron’s support base is weak and will struggle to capture leftist votes from Menchelon, who could abstain; or centre-right votes from Fillion, some of whom will drift towards Le Pen.
Lévy finishes with a warning that he thinks Le Pen is bad for France because she is a racist, she has close ties to enemies of France such as Russia, and her economic policies will bring France to financial ruin. He hoped that France will see a revival of republicanism but was not optimistic.