What does this man in a suit and open-collared shirt want from me? That seems to be the question that Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, leader of the Libyan rebels, was asking himself the first time he sat across from the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
The surreal scene took place on March 5, 2011 in Benghazi, only hours before the Libyan National Transitional Council was officially constituted, and two weeks before French fighter jets began bombing Libyan tanks. It illustrated the beginning of the unprecedented story of an intellectual intervening in world politics, with no official mandate and propelled only by himself. The odd thing about it is that it succeeded.
The images are from a film that is currently being completed, a work about Bernard-Henri Lévy and by Bernard-Henri Lévy. And by Marc Roussel, the Paris photographer who accompanied and filmed Lévy during his trips to Libya last year.
Lévy, known in France by the acronym BHL, is one of his country’s most controversial figures, and a man who is often mocked by his critics for his legendary vanity. But it is also beyond dispute that he played a central role in the Libyan war. Lévy convinced French President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with the rebel leaders when the insurgency was on the verge of defeat. BHL urged Sarkozy to support the rebels militarily. As a result, a leftist intellectual and a conservative president went to war together — a scenario that is likely only possible in France.
Lévy, 63, published some of his experiences as a literary diary in the fall, and now he is providing the corresponding images. « This film is the history of a guy who pressed a button, » says Lévy in the café of a five-star hotel in Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. The « guy » is Marc Roussel, his photographer, who had the presence of mind to activate the video function on his camera at key moments.
Wavy Hair in a War Zone
The film is still in production, but an excerpt already underscores the sheer foolhardiness of Lévy’s venture. One of those moments, absurd, comical and yet historic, is the first meeting between Lévy and rebel leader Abdul-Jalil.
Next to Abdul-Jalil, the Frenchman looks as out of place as a well-dressed philosopher with long, wavy hair can look in a war zone. The Libyan looks skeptical. He has no idea who this man is.
« Mr. Abdul-Jalil, » Lévy says solemnly, speaking French. « I am no politician. I am no man of action. I am merely a writer. But like you, I believe that it is better to act than to speak. » A man off-screen translates, while another man asks impatiently: « Do you have a letter from the international community? »
« Give me five minutes! » Lévy replies.
Then he continues in English: « Since my arrival, I have recognized that we can provide you with three things, » which he then proceeds to list: First, a no-fly zone, and second, the bombardment of the airports in Sabha and Sirt, and of then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s bunker in Tripoli. Third, Lévy says, Gadhafi can no longer be accepted as Libya’s representative internationally, which Abdul-Jalil and his Transitional Council will do in the future.
Abdul-Jalil listens motionlessly. Lévy is improvising the speech of his life. « Now, I have a friend — in France, » he says. « Who is Mr. Sarkozy. I’m not a partisan of Sarkozy, but we are friends. Personal friends. We will take the plane tomorrow, we are in Paris Monday morning and President Sarkozy will receive you and with all the others — or your representatives — at Palais de l’Élysée. This is the first step toward recognition. France will be the first country to officially receive the head of your council. »
‘Now We Call Sarkozy’
Roussel, the photographer who filmed the scene, still finds it spellbinding today. « That was the decisive moment when I realized that something unbelievable was happening in front of me. So I started filming. » He laughs. « What a monumental bluff, » he says. « He had to have a lot of guts to make such an offer without having spoken with Sarkozy first. I still remember what I said to Bernard afterwards: And what do we do now? He replied: That’s easy. Now we call Sarkozy. »
Roussel also filmed Lévy in his ensuing conversations with Sarkozy via satellite phone. He was in Benghazi, BHL told his friend, the president, and the rebels had just formed a council. Would Sarkozy be willing to meet with them?
The president asked for some time to think about it. After two hours, he called back to announce that he would receive Abdul-Jalil in Paris. Things went very quickly after that. The Libyans came to the Elysée Palace, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé was furious because he was only told about the meeting afterwards. France recognized the Transitional Council as Libya’s government and convinced the Americans and the British to follow suit.
On March 19, hardly 48 hours after the United Nations Security Council had adopted its resolution on Libya, French jets attacked Gadhafi’s tanks. A philosopher in a white Dior shirt had led the West into war.
Lévy beams when he is asked about his first meeting with Abdul-Jalil. The poker game he was playing still amuses him today. « It was a bet, » he says. At the time, he hadn’t been in contact with Sarkozy in years.
The two men have known each other since 1983, when Lévy lived in Neuilly, an upscale Paris suburb, where Sarkozy had just been elected mayor. In the small world of Paris, it’s nothing unusual for a leftist intellectual and a conservative politician to become friends. But the two had a falling out during the 2007 election campaign, when Lévy supported the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. Sarkozy’s advisory Henri Guaino called the philosopher « a pretentious little asshole. »
Not Voting for Sarkozy
Since their joint war in Libya, an unusual closeness has developed between Lévy and the president. « I discovered a seriousness in him that I liked, a toughness that I didn’t know and a sense for the country and history that surprised me, » says Lévy. It will make it difficult for him to vote against Sarkozy in the upcoming presidential election, he adds. « But there are now so many other things in his campaign of which I disapprove, so I won’t vote for him. » He can’t abide the way Sarkozy is stirring up the mood against Muslims and foreigners.
Nevertheless, the two men are still close, now that they have done each other a service. Lévy enabled Sarkozy to achieve the biggest foreign policy success of his presidency, and the president helped make Lévy’s old desire to influence world politics a reality.
Lévy had tried it several times before. During the Bosnian war, he went to see Alija Izetbegovi, the leader of the Bosnian Muslims. In Afghanistan, he once met with General Ahmed Sheikh Massoud. He said a similar thing to both men: I want you to come to Paris and meet the president. But neither of the two former presidents in question, François Mitterand or Jacques Chirac, was interested in helping. « I am a person who tries. I have spent my entire life trying things, » says Lévy.
He sees his commitment on behalf of the Libyan revolution in the tradition of French Colonel Philippe Leclerc. After the African triumphal march by the Free French Forces in 1941, he made a pledge called the « Oath of Kufra »: « Swear not to lay down arms until our colors, our beautiful colors, float on the Strasbourg Cathedral. » Lévy’s film will be called « Le serment de Tobrouk, » or « The Oath of Tobruk. »
Not a Shadow of a Doubt
Lévy also couldn’t stay in Paris after NATO began its invasion last March. He took five trips to Libya and toured the war zone, accompanied by Roussel, an assistant and a bodyguard. They went to Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains, and after Gadhafi was overthrown, they celebrated in Tripoli.
Countless photos were taken of Lévy in the desert, standing in front of tanks and in the midst of rubble, and they were published in newspapers worldwide. In the photos, Lévy’s suit always fit perfectly, and it certainly wouldn’t be amiss to imagine a similar look in the documentary film. The protagonist himself does the voiceover. Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron also appear in the film, recounting their experiences with the campaign in interviews.More than a year after Lévy’s first visit to Benghazi, Libya still isn’t a proper country. It is unclear when elections will take place, the country has no leadership and militias are grappling for power. « People are saying whatever they feel like. Libya is in much better shape than I read everywhere, » says Lévy. « The militias aren’t making laws, and the disarming process is well underway. Life has resumed in Benghazi and Tripoli, and the Islamists will be weaker than in Egypt. » It seems as if he were taking the criticism of progress in Libya personally. Although, on a recent trip, he filmed inside some prisons due to concerns about reports of torture. He remains cautious, but says they were « rather positively surprised » by what they saw.
He refuses to allow pessimists to diminish his campaign. A year ago, when he was sitting with Abdul-Jalil, he didn’t know how his bet would turn out, he says. « Today I am happy and worried, but mostly happy. I believe deeply that I was right. In fact, I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that I was. »
Mathieu von Rohr
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan