How Bernard-Henri Lévy Started the Libyan War (FrumForum, 27 mars 2011)

BHL en LibyeThis weekend’s Financial Times contains a revealing article detailing French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent unilateral decision to grant diplomatic recognition to Libya’s ragtag rebel movement – an important step in his aggressive campaign to push for and lead the ongoing military intervention against Colonel Qaddafi’s government. In her piece, “Sarko’s Lofty Ambition”, FT Paris Bureau Chief Peggy Hollinger reveals that left-wing celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy – usually referred to as “BHL” – called Sarkozy directly from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to get the President to recognize Libya’s “National Transitional Council”.

According to an unofficial Sarkozy advisor speaking on condition of anonymity:

Bernard-Henri rang him from Benghazi to tell him that French flags were everywhere. He told him that if he allowed a bloodbath there the blood would stain the French flag. That really affected him.

After talking to BHL, President Sarkozy – who (in Hollinger’s words) “likes nothing better than a crisis, a fight, and a gamble” – decided to unilaterally grant diplomatic recognition to the Libyan rebels and formally receive their representatives at the Elysée (a meeting also attended by BHL). Sarkozy’s impulsive move not only caused considerable tensions with France’s EU partners (particularly in Berlin) but was apparently not even coordinated with his own foreign minister Alain Juppé. In addition, the president’s ruling center-right UMP party was also kept in the dark.

By aggressively taking the lead in Libya, embattled President Sarkozy clearly hopes to shore up his political fortunes on the home front. Facing the worst approval ratings of any French president ever, Sarkozy is even at risk of being eliminated in the first round of the next presidential elections which are scheduled for April 2012.  Current opinion polls have him finishing third after top-rated National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Socialist heavyweight and current IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Knowing full well that the vast majority of French voters support Operation Odyssey Dawn and view it as a welcome opportunity to reassert France’s leadership on the global stage, Sarkozy is desperately trying to cast himself in the tradition of General Charles de Gaulle.

Like de Gaulle, Sarkozy is attempting to successfully promote France’s “grandeur nationale” in the hopes that this will also boost his own political standing (and historic legacy) as a strong and independent-minded leader. However, in sharp contrast to Sarkozy, de Gaulle was a hard-nosed realist who first and foremost pursued a national-interest-based foreign and security policy. While acting unilaterally where necessary, the conservative de Gaulle would probably turn in his grave if he saw how his political heir allowed a “gauche caviar” celebrity philosopher to hijack French foreign policy and drag the country into a civil war on the side of rebels whose leaders and ultimate agenda we know little about.

Unfortunately, BHL’s recent Libya adventure is not the first time that left-wing humanitarian interventionists have shaped French (conservative) foreign and security policy-making. After taking office in May 2007, President Sarkozy picked Socialist socialite Bernard Kouchner to serve as foreign minister in Prime Minister François Fillon’s newly formed conservative UMP government. Interestingly, Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and an aggressive proponent of humanitarian interventions around the world, was soon kicked out of his party for crossing political lines.

Speaking at an EU summit in Brussels last Thursday, President Sarkozy went so far as to threaten other leaders around the world with military intervention in the case of human rights violations:

Every ruler should understand, and especially every Arab ruler should understand, that the reaction of the international community and of Europe will from this moment on each time be the same: we will be on the side of peaceful protesters who must not be repressed with violence.

General de Gaulle, in contrast, would never have signed off on such a sweeping statement to commit France’s already waning political and military resources in pursuit of a vaguely defined foreign and security agenda so detached from the country’s core national interests.


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