Quand le New-York Times se penche sur le rôle de Bernard-Henri Lévy dans l’affaire libyenne

BHL en LibyeBERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, 62, is such an inescapable figure in France — of mockery, admiration, amusement, envy — that he is by now unembarrassable. Making his mark young as a philosopher, he was satirized neatly by a critic with the words: “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.”

But in the space of roughly two weeks, Mr. Lévy managed to get a fledgling Libyan opposition group a hearing from the president of France and the American secretary of state, a process that has led both countries and NATO into waging war against the forces of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

It was Mr. Lévy, by his own still undisputed account, who brought top members of the Libyan opposition — the Interim Transitional National Council — from Benghazi to Paris to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on March 10, who suggested the unprecedented French recognition of the council as the legitimate government of Libya and who warned Mr. Sarkozy that unless he acted, “there will be a massacre in Benghazi, a bloodbath, and the blood of the people of Benghazi will stain the flag of France.”

Mr. Lévy, a celebrated philosopher, journalist and public intellectual, gives Mr. Sarkozy sole credit for persuading London, Washington and others to support intervention in Libya.

“I’m proud of my country, which I haven’t felt for many years,” Mr. Lévy said in an interview. “When I compare Libya to the long time we had to scream in the desert about Bosnia, I must agree that despite all our disagreements, Sarkozy did a very good job.”

He is known simply as B.H.L., a man of inherited wealth, a socialist whose trademarks — flowing hair, black suits, unbuttoned white shirts, thin blond women — can undercut his passionate campaigning on public causes, including stopping genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, strong support for Israel and an early critique of France’s unthinking fascination with Communism, revolution and the Soviet Union.

His flamboyant advocacy has annoyed many in the past, including the current foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who seemed largely excluded from Mr. Lévy’s Libyan initiative. Mr. Lévy negotiated directly with Mr. Sarkozy, with whom Mr. Lévy has an extremely complicated relationship going back to 1983.

While they were friends and once vacationed together, Mr. Lévy openly supported Mr. Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent in the 2007 presidential election; Mr. Sarkozy then married Carla Bruni, who had broken up the marriage of Mr. Lévy’s daughter, Justine, who wrote a novel about it.

Still, Mr. Lévy also had close ties with François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, using his media and family connections — the industrialist François Pinault is his godfather — to push for action on the most pressing human rights issues of the day.

BUT he has outdone himself on Libya, playing to Mr. Sarkozy’s vanity and need for success as well as gratifying his own, and it is hard to say who used the other more.

It is an extraordinary tale, about which neither the Élysée Palace nor the Foreign Ministry wished to comment, other than quietly urging a grain of salt. Mr. Lévy was in Egypt at the tail end of the Tahrir Square uprising, went to the Libyan border but had pressing business in Paris. But on Feb. 27, before returning to North Africa, he called Mr. Sarkozy, asking if he was interested in making contact with the rebels. He was, so Mr. Lévy rented a plane and flew to Marsa Matrouh, the Egyptian airport closest to Libya.

Accompanied by his oldest friend and longtime collaborator, Gilles Hertzog, and, of course, a photographer, Marc Roussel, Mr. Lévy walked across the border past hundreds of yards of refugees and foreign workers and flagged down a car, which was delivering vegetables every 20 miles on the way to Tobruk, the first Libyan city inside the border. He then went to Bayda, where he found Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, the former Libyan minister of justice and leader of the Interim Transitional National Council.

On March 3, Mr. Lévy attended an early meeting of the council with Mr. Jalil in Benghazi in a colonial villa by the sea. He made a little speech about liberty and justice, said that Mr. Sarkozy was a political descendant of Charles de Gaulle, and asked if they would like him to call Mr. Sarkozy and try to arrange a meeting.

Unsurprisingly, they said yes, but first insisted that France “make a gesture.” Mr. Lévy called Mr. Sarkozy on an old satellite phone and Mr. Sarkozy agreed. On Saturday, March 5, France issued a press release, largely unnoticed everywhere except in Benghazi, greeting the formation of the transitional council.

OVERNIGHT, Mr. Lévy said, French flags festooned Benghazi, with a huge tricolor on the court building serving as opposition headquarters. On Sunday, Mr. Lévy drove the 10 hours back to the airport and flew back to Paris, and on Monday morning called Mr. Sarkozy on a better phone line and went to meet him. They agreed, he said, to keep the initiative a secret, even from the Foreign Ministry, though Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain was informed Wednesday evening.

On Thursday morning, a Libyan delegation, headed by Mahmoud Jibril, the de facto foreign minister, sat with Mr. Lévy in Mr. Sarkozy’s office. There Mr. Sarkozy agreed to recognize the opposition as the legitimate government of Libya, which shocked other European capitals and the French Foreign Ministry alike. He agreed to exchange ambassadors and to bomb three airports when he could.

According to Mr. Lévy, Mr. Sarkozy said he would work on getting international support and a United Nations Security Council resolution, but if he failed, he and Mr. Cameron might go ahead anyway with the mandate of the European Union, the Arab League and the African Union. Mr. Sarkozy swore them to secrecy on this “Plan B,” but told them to speak of everything else as they liked, Mr. Lévy said. He said Mr. Sarkozy told them, “My resolution is total.”

Convincing Washington was crucial. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was coming to Paris for a Group of 8 foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday, March 14, and wanted to meet Mr. Jibril. The Qatar Embassy facilitated his travel from Doha, Mr. Lévy said, and he went to Bourget airport to pick him up for a scheduled 4 p.m. meeting with Mrs. Clinton. But the Élysée had not been informed, and Mr. Jibril was held for two hours, until 5 p.m., before he was allowed into France. The meeting was rescheduled for 10 p.m. at Mrs. Clinton’s hotel after a Group of 8 dinner at the Élysée.

Mr. Lévy brought Mr. Jibril, who was staying with him, to the hotel, spent a few minutes with him and Mrs. Clinton, then left the room as the two spoke for nearly an hour. Afterward, Mr. Jibril was disconsolate, believing that he had failed to sway Mrs. Clinton. He insisted on leaving the hotel through a back entrance, to avoid waiting journalists.

At Mr. Lévy’s apartment he, Mr. Hertzog and Mr. Lévy, all of them depressed, stayed up until 2 a.m. on March 15 writing an appeal to the world, what Mr. Lévy called “our last card.” But they did not issue it, and at 3 p.m., Mr. Sarkozy called Mr. Lévy to say that “the American position is shifting.”

Mr. Sarkozy then hit the phones, Mr. Juppé flew to New York and by the time of the Security Council vote, on Thursday, March 17, Washington voted along with France and Britain for a resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya to protect the civilian population, while Russia and China abstained. That night, Mr. Sarkozy called Mr. Lévy to tell him, “We’ve won.”

On Saturday, March 19, as Mr. Sarkozy hosted a luncheon summit on Libya, the opposition called frantically for help. Qaddafi forces had reached the suburbs of Benghazi. That afternoon, France began the bombing, to general political applause at home, even from the Socialists. Mr. Lévy feels that he has helped to save lives and that Mr. Sarkozy has done the right thing, leading a diplomatic effort to intervene to save the entire “Arab spring” and “all the hopes it has raised.”

He claims to be indifferent to those who mock him. “What happened is more important than all the criticism,” Mr. Levy said. “We avoided a bloodbath in Benghazi.”

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