Bernard-Henri Lévy strides into the bar at the Bristol Hotel in Paris a few minutes after 9am, his familiar tanned face drawing a wave of discreet glances as he goes. It’s a grey midweek morning, but his trademark wraparound shades are in place, the floppy grey hair is in its prescribed backward sweep and the immaculate white shirt is, as usual, ostentatiously unbuttoned.
Lévy, or BHL as he is widely known, has been a ubiquitous presence in French public life for decades, occupying a loosely defined role that has seen him described variously as a philosopher, public intellectual, writer, journalist, activist, celebrity, attention-seeker and controversialist. He is admired for his chutzpah and his humanitarian causes, ridiculed for his vanity and self-promotion. But of all the adventures – his word – the 62-year-old has clocked up over the years, none has been quite as extraordinary as his recent involvement in Libya.
Through a chance sequence of events, Lévy played a central role in the diplomatic manoeuvring that led to foreign military intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Muammar Gadafy. In his account – still undisputed by the leading players – it was he who persuaded President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a patchy phone line from north Africa, to recognise and meet the Libyan opposition, setting in train a process that culminated in a UN resolution for military action and Gadafy’s downfall.
“I know it was crazy,” he says, stirring his tea. “Now that it’s over and I look at it with hindsight, I find the story far from ordinary. I’m well aware of the extreme strangeness of it.”
Lévy’s involvement, set out in his newly published Libyan diary, began in February, when he found himself in Cairo as the Arab Spring was about to claim its second dictator with the fall of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Watching TV images of a plane firing at protesters in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, he decided to go and see what was happening for himself. A few days later he crossed the border, got a lift on a vegetable truck and made for Benghazi, a stronghold of the opposition to Gadafy.
“I did what I have done constantly throughout my life,” Lévy says, finally taking off the shades. “I went there to see for myself, to report, and to apply the maximum pressure on public opinion and the leaders of my country.”
Lévy positions himself as an intellectuel engagé in the mould of George Orwell or the French writer André Malraux, who fought in the Spanish Civil War. For decades he has defended the idea of humanitarian military intervention and lobbied French governments to act in Rwanda, Bosnia and, more recently, Darfur. To the delight of satirists, he can be counted on to pop up where disaster strikes – not to fight but to file stories, shoot films, cause a stir and, well, be BHL.
In Benghazi, Lévy admits, people at first couldn’t understand who this man in the expensive unbuttoned shirt was or what he was doing there. “My name means nothing to them,” he wrote in an early diary entry. He wasn’t sure himself what his purpose was. In an entertaining description of his first meeting with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the nascent opposition and now Libya’s head of state, Lévy describes how he was struggling for something to say when, to make it less awkward, he asked Jalil if he’d be willing to meet Sarkozy if he could set it up. Sure, the Libyan replied.
So Lévy got hold of an old satellite phone, called the switchboard at the Élysée Palace in Paris and asked for the president. He was put through straight away. “Mr President, I have something important to tell you,” he began.
Sarkozy and Lévy had history. As neighbours in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, they had known each other well since the 1980s. But their friendship had frayed in 2007, when BHL supported the socialist Ségolène Royal for the presidency, and they had hardly spoken since. In a newspaper profile of Sarkozy that year, Lévy accused him of being incoherent and capricious. Sarkozy later married Carla Bruni, who had broken up the marriage of Lévy’s daughter, Justine, who wrote a novel about it.
And yet, after three 30-second conversations between Benghazi and Paris – the line kept cutting out – Sarkozy had, without hesitation, agreed to meet representatives of Libya’s newly formed National Transitional Council.
Within days, a delegation travelled from Benghazi to Paris. As its members left the Élysée after their meeting, Lévy announced to the world that France would recognise the council as Libya’s legitimate government. The move shocked other European capitals, the foreign ministry and even senior Élysée advisers. The previous night, a senior official had told me that France did not recognise opposition groups. Less than 24 hours later, it did just that.
Sarkozy and Lévy spoke about 40 times over the following months, the writer increasingly acting both as agent and adviser to the president. He urged Sarkozy to keep his own foreign and defence ministers in the dark about the recognition question, blaming bureaucracies for stalling action in Rwanda and Bosnia. Sarkozy seems to have agreed. In fact, in Lévy’s telling, Sarkozy seems to have gone along with almost everything he suggested – who to tell, who to arm, even where to open a second front – though he admits that he was involved in only a small number of important decisions.
One of these was taken at a meeting on March 7th, when Lévy came to warn the president that Gadafy’s forces were approaching Benghazi and that there was a high risk of atrocities without foreign intervention. “It’s simple,” he told Sarkozy. “If there’s a massacre in Benghazi, the blood of the dead will stain the French flag.”
Lévy’s diary describes the intense French diplomacy that took place to persuade European capitals, Arab states and, most importantly, the US, to join the coalition. A decisive moment, he claims, came when he brought Mahmoud Jibril, the Libyan council’s acting prime minister, to see the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in Paris on March 14th.
Lévy believes that meeting finally convinced her of the case for war and, with the help of allies such as Obama’s Irish-American adviser Samantha Power, she then managed to win the argument in Washington and persuade the White House to take part. At midnight on March 17th, Sarkozy called Lévy to tell him that the UN resolution had been secured.
French commentators have often debated why Sarkozy showed such an appetite for risk in Libya. On this, Lévy shares an explanation that the president gave him just last week. “First, he reproached himself for not having seen the Arab Spring coming. And second, he is part of the generation, as am I, that experienced French impotence in Bosnia, particularly in Srebrenica. He said that day, believe it or not, that ‘I don’t want to be French president for a second Srebrenica.’ ”
Lévy says he felt a huge moral responsibility in calling for war, but he is contemptuous of suggestions that the threat facing Benghazi was exaggerated. He accepts that the rebels were “no angels” and cites Gadafy’s killing as his one major regret, but, overall, he is convinced that there was no moral alternative to war.
“There are situations where, to prevent a much greater evil, you must resign yourself to war,” he says. “I believed we were at that point, that the only way to prevent a massacre on a very large scale, people falling under a dictatorship even more severe than before, the crushing of this regional movement for liberty, was to stop Gadafy.”
Lévy seems to enjoy knowing that his involvement in Libya irritated many people in the French state apparatus. But were there not serious questions to be asked about his role, not least about his lack of a mandate and the absence of accountability?
“I’m not elected,” he says. “I’m not a diplomat. I didn’t have any legitimacy in the traditional sense of the word . . . My legitimacy was that which I gave myself, and which then recognised.”
This is the sort of line that drives Lévy’s critics mad, and you suspect he knows it. But he admits to having changed his views on some things, not least on Sarkozy, whom he rated so poorly four years ago. “Either he has changed or I was wrong. I don’t know. I don’t exclude either hypothesis,” he says.
So does that mean Lévy, the self-declared lifelong socialist, will vote for the right-wing president next year? He shakes his head firmly. “Not unless something extraordinary happens.”