The Strenuous Life


Last year, Karl Zéro, the madcap newsman/comedian who has been a fixture on French television for a decade, asked the sixty-one-year-old celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy why people hated him so. Perhaps, Zéro speculated, it had to do with dual identity. There was Bernard-Henri Lévy, who launched his career in the 1970s with La Barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), an attack on Communism, and who in the decades since had written three dozen more books, most of them about current affairs, and many of them best sellers. Then there was BHL (“Bay-Arsh-Ell”), as he was called in the gossip magazines, the very wealthy heir to a lumber fortune, who owned John Paul Getty’s old palace in Marrakech, who had married a fashion model, and who had counted the country’s last three presidents among his personal friends. Zéro seemed to suggest that the glamour and privilege of BHL clashed with the roles that Lévy accorded himself in his writings—Tribune of Democracy and Conscience of France.

Lévy had another theory. He believed he provoked strong feelings among French people because he was right so often. “Because I was right about Bosnia,” he said. “Because I was right about Rwanda. Because I was right about Darfur. Because I was right about Communism.”

The West has good reason to hope Lévy is right just now. He is credited with—or blamed for—having started the war that NATO is fighting in Libya. Lévy chartered a jet in late February, flew to the Egypt-Libya border, and made contact with the National Transition Council (NTC), a rebel group in Benghazi. He was swept off his feet. This was at the point when a Libyan uprising seemed to have a good chance of driving Múammar Gadhafi from power, although the dictator was beginning a counteroffensive. Lévy phoned Nicholas Sarkozy—a friend of three decades’ standing, with whom he has vacationed several times—to urge him to back the rebel group with air strikes. Lévy set up a meeting between the rebels and Sarkozy on March 10, and Hillary Clinton met their de facto leader, Mahmoud Jibril, in Paris a few days later. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, began calling for air strikes himself. On March 17th, ten countries on the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, and the French Air Force swung into action to block Gadhafi’s army at the gates of Benghazi.

Going to war has looked like a less good idea ever since. Sarkozy and Cameron, writes the military historian Max Hastings in the Financial Times, “have supported the weaker faction in a civil war without knowing who the rebels are or whether their cause is sustainable.” Barack Obama has been willing to invest US machinery in the war (including drones), but not troops or political capital. As prospects on the ground look more dire, Zéro’s question about dual identity takes on a paramount importance. Sarkozy’s future may hinge on whether it was Bernard-Henri Lévy or BHL who prodded him to act. It is one thing to take one’s country to war after consulting with a thoughtful moral philosopher, quite another to do so at the urging of a rich and influential crony.


Lévy recently wrote of his late mentor at the École Normale Supérieure, the brilliant and doomed Marxist Louis Althusser: “In ‘doing philosophy,’ Althusser used to say, the important word is not ‘philosophy’ but ‘doing.’” Lévy thinks a philosopher must be a man of action, in contrast to those who believe his purpose is to “reflect or meditate or ruminate.” For him, the only kind of intellectual is a public intellectual. The register in which Lévy tends to write is that of Zola’s “J’accuse” and Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach.” He wants not to interpret the world but to change it.

You can see this in his prose. “It is, once again, five minutes to midnight in Benghazi,” he wrote in mid-April in his “notebook” in the French weekly Le Point, but then, it always is. These notebooks have an undercurrent of hot rumor and unverified intuition about them, as when Lévy, in April, derided “the attitude of an Obama whom people here in Benghazi are beginning to suspect of dreaming of a new Dayton Accord, an agreement to partition the country.” The result resembles yellow journalism, except that a sentimental idea of humanity takes the place of the usual nationalism. The “fair wind of democracy,” to use a phrase of Lévy’s, is always blowing at gale force.

It is false to say, as some do, that “only France” could produce such a figure as Lévy. He is a type of journalist recognizable in any country—the hortatory adventure seeker, prescribing foreign travel as a moral tonic for an enervated West. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who tours the world harvesting the grievances of suffering humanity and cooks them into a meal of moral authority for his untraveled readers, is engaged in a similar project. So were the late Italian reporters Oriana Fallaci and Tiziano Terzani. The writing that results from Lévy’s public activism is sometimes entertaining and sometimes even admirable. But it is hard to see anything philosophical about it.

Certainly there are themes in Lévy’s writing. One is democracy. It was he who introduced the Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic to François Mitterrand in hopes of getting Mitterrand to take Bosnia’s side in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Lévy believes the so-called Arab spring refutes “a certain number of idées reçues that I have been fighting for twenty years—to start with, the racist one of an ‘Arab exception’ that makes this part of the world resistant, by its essence, to democracy.” Lévy’s ideas about the suitability of the Arab world to democracy are not much different from those of George W. Bush at the time of the Iraq war. While Lévy professes himself a vehement opponent of that war, the philosophical distinctions between his view and Bush’s are negligible.

It is true that Lévy’s militarized humanitarianism, unlike Bush’s, requires the obsolescence of the nation-state. In this light, he considers the Arab League’s request for UN help in toppling Gadhafi to be a matter of historical significance. The Muslim world, Lévy believes, no longer rejects the principle that the “international community” has a “right of interference” and a “responsibility to protect.” Yet it is unclear just how far he means to argue on the international community’s behalf. His multilateral bias is at odds with the French nationalism that he also professes from time to time. Lévy has confirmed reports that he urged Sarkozy to intervene in Libya by warning that there would be “blood on the French flag” if Sarkozy refrained. But this makes no sense. If France is subordinate to the United Nations, there cannot ever, by definition, be blood on the French flag.

The war has been good for the national élan, and it is generally popular in France, although its detractors tend to have the more logical arguments. “We are launching destructive military operations against a country that has not attacked us and which is not threatening our interests,” the diplomat and novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin noted, shortly after the air strikes began. This put France outside the boundaries of the military doctrines laid out in its 2008 White Paper on Defense and National Security, which were themselves partly an attempt to codify what the nation ought and ought not to do in the wake of the Iraq invasion.

Lévy has little patience with those who don’t share his enthusiasm for the new humanitarian warfare or don’t follow his reasoning. In recent weeks, he has laid into the German government of Angela Merkel, which is skeptical of France’s plans to back the rebels and abstained from the vote on Resolution 1973. As Lévy put it in a recent interview, “Germany, to its great credit, has for decades felt responsible to be vigilant against everything reminiscent of the Nazi past.” It does not occur to Lévy that reasonable people might differ on whether air raids or no air raids would be more reminiscent of the Nazi past. And his impatience has angered Germans. “Monsieur Lévy,” a correspondent for Der Spiegel recently asked the philosophe, “are you satisfied with your war?”


To call it Lévy’s war is an exaggeration. French foreign minister Alain Juppé and his British counterpart, William Hague, were consulting on Libya before Lévy brought the NTC to Paris. Sarkozy had every reason to want to take a stand. France, despite claiming a special role in North Africa, had been humiliated by the democratic uprisings there. In Tunisia, then foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was found to be embarrassingly close to the ousted regime and to have accepted free flights from a Tunisian businessman. A week later, it was revealed that Prime Minister François Fillon had similar ties to Egypt. A year out from France’s elections, Sarkozy gave the impression of having missed the boat in North Africa. He did not need Lévy to persuade him to do something to change the narrative.

What Lévy did have a great deal to do with was the way France went into battle. It was apparently Lévy who sold the government on the understanding that the NTC represented all the Libyan rebels. He went to great lengths to portray them as keenly attuned to French interests. “Not a single one has any sympathy for what we call radical Islam,” he said. So the Sarkozy government recognized the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, a move soon followed by Italy and Qatar. This is not looking like a wise decision. In mid-April, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat published an interview with an Al Qaeda representative who claimed to be content with his organization’s penetration of the parts of eastern Libya controlled by the rebels. Days later, an extraordinary report by Natalie Nougayrède of Le Monde showed that Libya’s tribal leaders don’t recognize the NTC as any kind of national leadership—-and that they don’t want to see any of the Libyan oil money frozen since March going to the rebel group.

These funds amount to at least thirty billion dollars. Once the US ordered them frozen, any group that could get itself declared the legitimate government of Libya would have a claim on them. We don’t have any reason to believe that the NTC is less truthful than other Libyan rebel groups, but we should recognize that, under such circumstances, it has a powerful incentive to answer Western questions about its ideology and aims untruthfully. That is why the most troubling aspect of this episode is Lévy’s reported insistence to Sarkozy that certain arrangements regarding meetings with the NTC be kept secret from Sarkozy’s cabinet (including Juppé) and France’s allies (including Germany). A rich man assures the public that there are countless democrats across Libya but then acts in secret to assure that control over its oil billions goes to the clutch of democrats he happens to know personally. That is, alas, the kind of democracy that nondemocrats have traditionally rallied behind. It is a legacy that better befits the vain celebrity BHL than the battling philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Christopher Caldwell is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (Doubleday, 2009).