BHL and Houellebecq: Public Enemies or Enemies of the Public?

In 2008, two of the most celebrated and controversial public intellectuals in France today published a co-written book; Public Enemies.Atypical to any work previously produced by the individuals, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (otherwise famously known as ‘BHL’) and novelist Michel Houellebecq, ‘take on each other and the world’ in a series of letters which confront criticisms from the press and their contemporaries. Its release in the UK and USA landed the book on the international best seller’s list, confirming their work remains a public interest on a global scale – but for what reason? During a period of growing anti-intellectualism (Furedi, 2016), this publication and its various front-covers raise relevant discussions on how the public intellectual is perceived in contemporary society.


Fig. 1                                             Fig. 2                                        Fig. 3

Intellectuel engagé vs. nihilist

The concept of intellectualism is instantly connected to the art of writing via the emblem of the pen in both the British (fig.1) and American (fig.2) covers, implying that for these respective countries, the intellectual is first and foremost a writer. The two intellectuals are aiming their pen at one another as if they are weaponizing the object, clarifying that the intellectual uses their writing to comment on society and ultimately, have an impact on public opinion, thus reflecting the ideals of the traditional critical intellectual (Kellner, 1995: 427). However, in the world of intellectuals, the motivations for writing and the ideas expressed by BHL and Houellebecq are widely apart. When promotingPublic Enemies, both authors appeared on Daniel Picouly’s Café Littéraire (2008),and the heavy contrast between their principles was highlighted from the get-go: BHL, ecrivain engagé and committed supporter of the existentialist intellectual, and Houellebecq, nihilist whose concept of commenting on the harsh-truths of the world as he sees it rather than committing himself to any cause breaks the traditional understanding of the term. Arguably, the use of colours on the British cover echoes this as it symbolises each hand emerging from red and blue corners, as if it were a boxing match; BHL and Houellebecq are the opponents and the pen is their weapon.

The Frenchness of Intellectualism

Bringing this into comparison with the French design (fig.3), there is no connection between the intellectual and their role as a writer. Rather, the cover shows a photograph of each figure, firstly suggesting that BHL and Houellebecq are notorious enough to use their image alone to sell copies, and secondly, that in France a public intellectual counts for more than a philosopher and writer. Photographs of the authors appear on stamps, portraying them as national icons and symbolising the important status they are given in French society. In an interview for La Tribune, BHL states that the difference in perceptions of the public intellectual figure in France compared to in Anglo-Saxon countries is deeply rooted from its historical events. According to him, the goal of achieving universality has been present in French society since the French Revolution, and the idea that intellectuals have a duty to ‘put their work as a writer to one side in order to get involved’ dates back to the Dreyfus Affair, explaining why it is considered such a fundamental element of the nation’s culture (Lefort, 2008: 29). The British cover instantly depicts intellectualism as a French concept via the use of their national colours red, white and blue. Additionally, its back cover (fig.4) reiterates this through the illustration of a hand holding a cigarette, which is seen to be figurative of the French intellectual (Prochasson, 2010). The symbolism evident on these covers subsequently create the impression that the intellectual has become an emblem of French history, rather than a concept which is continuing to grow in the twenty-first century.


From Intellectual to Pop-icon

The intellectual becoming emblematic of historical culture represents both the decline of the ‘French Theory’ on a global scale and the decline of the intellectual in France itself, which in turn has caused a change in the relationship between the intellectual, the media and the public. Since the developments of new forms of communication, intellectuals have utilised mass media to expand their audience and ensure they are not forgotten, with the intention of effectively circulating their ideas to the public (Sand, 2018: 189). The photographs used on the French cover, however, suggest that BHL and Houellebecq are dedicated to promoting themselves as media personalities. The pictures deploy their trademarks: BHL is instantly recognisable with his famed bouffant hair, white buttoned-down shirt and black jacket, while Houellebecq reinstates his well-known scruffy look. This suggests that in modern society, their image holds higher value than that of their ideas. With the arrival of the internet and social media, the dynamics of the public sphere have changed due to the overflow of new information (Kellner, 1995: 437). BHL and Houellebecq could therefore be using their appearance as a marketing technique to catch the decreasing attention-span of the public. However, with more and more significance being placed on the material aspects of the intellectual, their work could become ‘less distinctive, less interesting, and less important,’ transforming the intellectual into a popularised icon who entertains, rather than influences (Posner, 2001: 3).


The American design similarly displays their stereotyped images, but the caricatured depiction is pervaded by a sense of mockery. Their characters are distinctly related back to the idea of Frenchness as Houellebecq holds a glass of wine and BHL a cup of coffee, two clear symbols of French culture. The cover thus not only suggests that the appearance of the figures is more famously recognised than their ideas, but it then makes the French culture of popularising intellectuals a point of ridicule. Hints of anti-intellectualism in American culture insinuated by this cover could potentially be in retaliation to the anti-American attitudes which have become a defining characteristic of French political and intellectual life; a construct ‘rooted in the notion of an idealized France resistant to foreign influences and attached to home-grown values’ (Hazareesingh, 2015a: 180).

It is therefore clearly represented through all three covers that intellectualism embodies an important part of France’s history and culture, which in turn has arguably restored BHL and Houellebecq’s role to national symbols and pop-icons rather than recognising their intellectual value. While their role of writers and philosophers may have been implicit, the front covers of Public Enemiesfail to portray the significance of their opposing standpoints as intellectuals. This, therefore, leads to the assumption that despite BHL and Houellebecq’s differences, the true conflict currently lies between the intellectuals and the public sphere. Through the publication of this book, BHL and Houellebecq have conceived that the way in which the media portray the public intellectual today is beginning to have a negative effect on the culture. The book covers embody this. Particular focus is dedicated to the personality and appearance of each intellectual, and to what they represent symbolically to France as a nation, which supports the concerns addressed in the book regarding too much criticism from the press and not enough discussion about their intellectual work. Hence, as long as this relationship with the public continues, is the real enemy of the intellectuals actually the media?



Fig.1: Lévy, B.H., Houellebecq, M. (2011). Public Enemies. Translated by M. Frendo and F. Wynne. Front cover, designed by L. Cosgrove. London: Atlantic Books.

Fig.2: Lévy, B.H., Houellebecq, M. (2011). Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World. Translated by M. Frendo and F. Wynne. Front cover, designed by L. Cosgrove. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Fig.3: Lévy, B.H., Houellebecq, M. (2008). Ennemis Publics.Front cover, designed by Anon.Paris: Flammarion / Grasset & Fasquelle.

Fig.4: Lévy, B.H., Houellebecq, M. (2011). Public Enemies. Translated by M. Frendo and F. Wynne. Back cover, designed by L. Cosgrove. London: Atlantic Books.

Fig.5: Gabriel, P. (2016). “BHL expulsé à l’inauguration de la représentation des Kurdes syriens à Paris.” Réseau International. <> [Last accessed 9 November 2018].


Further Reading

Cadwalladr, C. (2011). “Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy,” The Observer. <> [Last accessed 10 November].

Café Littéraire. 2008. France 2. 10 October, 22:00.

Furedi, F. (2006). Where have all the intellectuals gone?London: Continuum.

Garcin, J. (2008). “Nous, Ennemis Publics,” Le Nouvel Observateur.2 October, pp. 110-18.

Hazareesingh, S. (2015a). How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People.New York: Basic Books.

Hazareesingh, S.(2015b). “The decline of the French intellectual,” Politico. <> [Last accessed 6 November 2018].

Houellebecq, M. (2015). Soumission. Paris: Flammarion.

Kellner, D. (1995). “Intellectuals and new technologies,” Media, Culture & Society, 17(3), pp. 427–448.

Lancelin, A. (2011). “Nos Intellos en Amérique,” Le Nouvel Observateur.6 November, pp. 112-15

Lefort, I. (2008). “BHL Think in USA,” La Tribune,28 November,pp. 27-34.

Lévy, B.H. (1999). Le siècle de Sartre. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle.

Lévy, B.H., Houellebecq, M. (2008). Ennemis Publics. Paris: Flammarion / Grasset & Fasquelle.

Posner, R. (2001). Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Prochasson, C. (2010). “L’image sans le son: le petit théâtre des intellectuels français au XXe siècle,” Modern and Contemporary France, pp. 55-69.

Sand, S. (2018). The End of the French Intellectual?: From Zola to Houellebecq.Translated by D. Fernbach. London; New York: Verso.

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