The people of Libya will be eternally grateful, no doubt, to our politicians for backing military action against their dictator if he is eventually deposed. Yet the man who really took us to war in the desert is a trendy Parisian intellectual who looks like a cross between Eric Cantona and Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, and who wears his trademark white shirts undone to the navel.
Nothing can keep Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s celebrity philosopher, from a battlefield: he mixes good looks, a glamorous lifestyle and swaggering self-belief with an interest in noble causes. From Bosnia to Georgia, the limelight-loving author has missed no opportunity for deploying his tanned chest, designer wardrobe and big thoughts in the service of “truth”.
Now the self-styled “man of action” and legendary séducteur is being hailed — with some justification — as the driving force behind the allied war against Muammar Gadaffi’s forces in Libya. How did it happen? How did the preening philosopher stud with the British heiress girlfriend, Daphne Guinness, to go with his blonde, film-star wife, manage to take control of French — and in this case western — foreign policy?
“I don’t do it because I like it. I’m a writer, not a minister,” he says, describing how he took it upon himself to put the rebel leaders in contact with President Nicolas Sarkozy. It resulted in France becoming the first country officially to recognise them. “I told Sarkozy that if he did nothing, the French flags hanging in Benghazi would be spattered with the blood of innocent Libyans,” explains Lévy. “My personal feeling is that these were among the words that moved Sarkozy, that tilted him into action.”
French intellectuals have a tradition of political involvement — from Voltaire to Victor Hugo, they have frequently dabbled — and the country’s people seem to approve of figures such as BHL, as he is universally known, pushing politicians into the right moral choices. The flowing locks and unbuttoned Byronic look may seem caricaturish and annoying on our side of the Channel. He is deadly earnest, though, a stranger to irony. That, too, is a very French thing.
From his chic Boulevard Saint-Germain apartment to his luxurious Moroccan villa, the writer moves, often by private jet, in a glamorous celebrity sphere. It is a bit different from the British notion of a philosopher’s life — a tweed jacket, a pipe, an ivory tower: BHL likes life in the fast lane and says that “philosophy is war, not debate”.
The only British equivalents, he suggests, of the Gallic thinker-action figure might be rock stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof, even if they are Irish and not generally renowned as intellectuals. “They try to put pressure on western leaders,” says BHL, approvingly. “They use the same logic.”
He was a long way from the Café de Flore, his headquarters on the left bank, when he hitched a ride on the back of a fruit truck into the besieged city of Benghazi at the beginning of last month.
Somehow, he managed to keep the trademark black suit and white shirt, made to measure by Charvet, unruffled. He began to explore the battlefield.
“I was moved by the imbalance between Gadaffi’s forces and these ill-equipped young guys,” he says. He was also worried that their rebellion might be short-lived. “Gadaffi was saying that he was about to take revenge, to purge the city of its insurgent elements. I knew what it would mean: a bloodbath.”
He decided to act. He wangled his way into a meeting of the rebel leadership. “I told them that I was honoured to be there, and moved by the trust they had in me.” Then he gave them a brief history lesson. “In France,” he told them, “we have a tradition of resistance dating back to the second world war.” He also explained he had a personal contact with Sarkozy and could try to arrange a meeting with him for the leaders.
“At first, I don’t think that they took it all that seriously,” he recalls. That evening, though, he got on his battered old satellite phone to try to reach the French leader.
“The connection was very difficult,” he said. “It is a phone I have had since a trip to Afghanistan in 2000. Every few seconds the line would go dead.”
There was more than dodgy technology stacking the odds against him. Henri Guaino, one of Sarkozy’s closest lieutenants, once described BHL as “a pretentious little git”. And Lévy, for his part, was not known as an admirer or friend of the centre-right president. So why should the president listen to him?
“I did not vote for Sarkozy; we disagree on nearly everything,” Lévy acknowledges. “But I wanted to put the rebel cause on the agenda, and Sarkozy seemed the best vehicle for achieving this. French diplomacy is paralysed when it comes to initiatives like this.”
As it turned out, Sarkozy was all ears: he has a complex about not being as well read or cultured as his predecessors and, under the influence of Carla Bruni, his former supermodel and folk singer wife, has been dropping the names of obscure German film-makers and befriending left bank figures such as Lévy from the world of art and ideas.
“He was instrumentalising me, yes, of course, but I was also making an instrument of him,” says the philosopher.
What made Sarkozy particularly receptive to BHL’s pitch was the fact that he had been having a dreadful “Arab spring”.
The Elysée Palace had removed from its website pictures of Sarkozy warmly welcoming Gadaffi to Paris four years ago — he had been allowed to set up his bedouin tent in a garden in central Paris. Sarkozy also had to sack his foreign minister over her ties to the former, rapacious Tunisian regime. Known for an impulsive and impatient streak, he barely hesitated when asked by Lévy if he would meet the rebel leaders in Paris. “He just said ‘okay’,” Lévy recalls.
The philosopher was soon escorting the rebel leaders into the Elysée. Sarkozy announced to the delighted Libyans that he would recognise their council as the sole, legitimate leadership in Libya. He would send an ambassador to Benghazi and push for airstrikes on Gadaffi’s forces.
Not a man to pause for anything so trivial as a United Nations resolution, Lévy emerged onto the palace steps to announce that France recognised the rebel leadership and was preparing for airstrikes on Libya.
Descending from a train in Brussels two hours later, Alain Juppé, the newly appointed foreign minister, was dumbfounded when confronted by journalists wanting to know what he thought about BHL’s backstairs diplomacy. Furious to have been kept out of the loop, Juppé threatened to resign, but an ebullient Sarkozy managed to cajole him into flying to New York to press the case at the UN.
Much though the French expect their thinkers to leap into the political ring, it was not the first time that BHL had been accused of grandstanding and meddling. “Eighteen years ago I fixed up a meeting between Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, and François Mitterrand, the former Socialist leader,” he explains. He tried in vain a few years later to arrange a meeting between the former president Jacques Chirac and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” and scourge of the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
More recently he has campaigned for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to execution by stoning; and for Roman Polanski, the film director who admitted the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in 1977 — “It was not a rape,” he exclaims.
For all the reverence that the French accord their thinkers, BHL has also become a figure of fun, all the more so since quoting extensively, in his latest book, the work of Botul, a philosopher who turned out, with his school of “botulism”, to have been a journalist’s hoax.
And even the French find it hard to take too seriously a man who once wrote, in one of his more introspective books: “What writer can deny that the reason he writes is to seduce women?”
Some of his comments on the Arab spring are also inclined to provoke smirks. Asked what he believes will be the ultimate effect of the protests sweeping the Middle East, he predicts an end to the history of western powers pandering to desert despots and makes the point graphically: “It will be more and more difficult for the western powers to give blowjobs to dictators.”
The defection of Musa Kusa, Gadaffi’s foreign minister, during a visit to London last week was “good news” as he was a “pillar of the regime”. Lévy predicted that others would follow like “rats leaving a sinking ship”. With any luck, this would hasten the downfall of Gadaffi. Just in case, though, he thinks the allies should start arming the rebels.
Whatever the criticism, Sarkozy must be happy with BHL’s antics. Residents of Benghazi are chanting: “One, two, three, merci Sarkozy!” If only French voters were so enthusiastic: there has been no hoped-for “Libya bounce”. “Of course there was calculation,” says Lévy, “but Sarkozy has not gained one inch in the polls.”
Lévy, by contrast, seems to have got what he wanted as he basks, shirt undone, in the public’s acknowledgment of his flamboyant “diplomatic activism”. There is a pause when he is asked if he expects a statue of him to be erected one day by a grateful Benghazi. “I was just the messenger,” he says. For once he sounds modest.