On the Road With Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Planet’s Last Superstar French Intellectual
From Paris to Benghazi to Dhaka to Kiev, France’s most prominent, and tireless, public philosopher is also its de facto statesman
“Incapable of talking about myself? That’s not my reputation, not precisely. And when I do think about it, they reproach me with the opposite: exhibitionism, narcissism, being the type who always says ‘me, me, me,’ the media star and the self-promoter, king of the troublemakers, a total egocentrist, a specialist at drawing media attention … I could go on.”
—Bernard-Henri Lévy, Comédie(1997)
It was a balmy Friday evening in Paris, in early March, and 500 Ukrainians had massed at the corner where rue Apollinaire meets the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Plaza to celebrate the overthrow of their country’s reviled President Viktor Yanukovich. Deposed, despite his sanctioning indiscriminate fire against the crowds, he had fled the capital into Putin’s frigid embrace and offer of sanctuary in the Russian border city of Rostov-on-Don. In between bouts of patriotic song and chanting (“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”) they inquired one another’s names and towns of origin. The aura of solidarity was undeniably bewitching, not least for the organizer of the event, France’s most prominent public intellectual, philosophe, journalist, novelist, filmmaker, dandy, libertine, and sometime professional revolutionary, Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Exactly one month before, on Feb. 9, BHL, as Lévy is universally known to the French, had appeared in Kiev to deliver a typically grandiloquent and stirring speech, studded with proclamations of fidelity to the loftiest principles of freedom and solidarity in the face of tyranny. The apex of his oration was the declaration “France is Ukraine! Ukraine is Europe!” It was an axiom that augured the commencement of BHL’s own direct involvement in the Ukrainian political crisis. It has been almost three years since the great coup of his career as a diplomatic/political operator intervening (or if one prefers, meddling) at the highest levels of the French state. With a flurry of beseeching satellite phone calls to President Nicolas Sarkozy from the desert outskirts of Benghazi, BHL helped to engineer the French military intervention in Libya that led to the ousting of the Qaddafi regime—events that confirmed BHL’s unique standing as a freelance statesman who runs his own foreign policy parallel to that of the French state.
With his gifts—the intelligence and good looks, superhuman stamina, money, and connections—it would be almost criminal if BHL did not accomplish something of world historical importance, a thought that seems to animate some good part of his peripatetic engagements. His answer to questions about the oddness of one unelected intellectual pursuing his own foreign policy is that he is forced to take action when the French state fails to do so: “The real deficit is in the actions of the Quai d’Orsay.” The example of his friend Bernard Kouchner’s experience as French foreign minister has also doubtless made BHL cautious about accepting government posts. (Kouchner was thrown out of the Socialist party for crossing party lines, before being sacked in a cabinet reshuffle.) “I told him not to take it!” BHL confided. Sarkozy did offer BHL the culture ministry, which he duly turned down, as he habitually turns down the Legion d’honneur.
Still, not everyone is thrilled by the kindly policy assistance that this unelected patriot offers the French state. Sarkozy’s actual foreign minister, Alain Juppé, once threatened to resign after he was looped into a critical meeting that BHL had freelanced with the Libyan rebels. The response of the current foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (the son of assimilated Jews; BHL has known him since he was 17), to BHL’s meddling with his portfolio has largely been one of passive resistance: According to someone present at the cabinet meeting that BHL had set up for the Ukrainians, Fabius sat silently peering at his phone for the duration of the gathering.
The Ukrainian delegation had arrived in Paris that March morning aboard billionaire presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko’s private plane. After BHL’s intense lobbying for an official reception by the French state and cabinet—throughout the crisis, the French government had shown no interest in meeting with any representatives of Ukraine—the delegation had briefed President François Hollande on Kiev’s options in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Now they would address an auditorium filled to bursting with their countrymen, as several hundred more waited outside. Stocky Ukrainian men draped in blue-and-yellow flags fraternized with blue-eyed young men in Vyshyvankas. Pretty Slavic blondes with wreaths of flowers in their hair jostled for seats with middle-aged Soviet women with boxy haircuts. The crowd spilled out of the chairs and into the aisles clutching banners and massive flags.
On the stage, our host BHL welcomed us to “Maidan on Saint-Germain-des-Prés” and delivered a rousing speech in defense of Ukraine’s natural place in Europe. BHL is tall, slim, and broad-shouldered and carries himself like a man 20 years younger. The flowing mane of famously sculpted hair is now streaked with gray, but he is still handsome in the symmetric fashion. The signature custom-made white shirt was open to his chest. The beautiful bespoke black suit from Charvet, a knightly suit of armor that has been his uniform of four decades, glittered with a soft sheen. On this occasion it was a single-button continental cut with an Italianate drape, a pinched waist, and billowing trousers. He paced the stage in fiery restiveness and thundered at the grandiose registers demanded by the revolutionary mood. His oratory that night—there are those who think that he might be France’s greatest living orator—was an impassioned, astute, and morally committed denunciation of Russian imperialism. Playing to the crowd, he occasionally ventured too deeply into rhetorical plays on the theme of “Putin is the new Hitler.”
The portly Poroshenko spoke next and began by informing the crowd that he had agreed to say a few words in English. The suggestion was roundly booed, and he switched into his accomplished and fluid Ukrainian to speak about the rule of law and economic reforms. Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, another presidential hopeful, addressed the gathering next. He was grim-faced and stoic, not in the least a natural politician. On the other hand, he is close to 7 feet tall and is by far the biggest person in the room; there is a primordial quality to the intuition that his leadership claim is derived from his sheer size and martial prowess in the same way that primitive tribes would choose their strongest warrior to be their chieftain. Klitschko’s stiff Ukrainian hinted at his Russophone Odessa origins: He noted that “his mother is Russian and father is Ukrainian” and occasionally stumbled while trying to recall a word in Ukrainian. One did not need to be a great political scientist to see which of the two men would become president.
A minute of silence was observed in honor of the “celestial hundred” of demonstrators who had given their lives for Ukraine on and around Maidan Square. A pair of shy, teary-eyed young women, a medic and an activist, softly recounted the horror of watching their friends fall before the bullets. The shorter of the two had thick scar tissue from where a sniper’s bullet had entered her neck. After they spoke, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered them with vigorous cries of Molodzi (good work)! The final speaker was the suave rector of the Mogilev academy, who spoke in impressive French about the need for connections between Kiev and Paris. After the last speech, the crowd stood to sing Ukraine’s mournful national anthem.
Immediately after the rally concluded, Klitschko grasped the opportunity to disappear backstage. Poroshenko dove into the crowd to shake hands, take photographs, and get into an impressive yelling match with a young activist who righteously accused the old-guard politician of not having a reformist platform. My wife and I decided to conclude the evening half a block away at the Café de Flore, where it turned out that we were not the only Champagne socialists to find themselves in Paris’ plushest café at the end of the evening: The maître d’ sat us at a table next to where Lévy was dining with the Ukrainian delegation, the rector of the Mogilev academy, and some of our Ukrainian acquaintances. I would learn later that he had partially planned the French intervention in Libya while hosting the Libyan rebels at the same table.
BHL was pleased with the tremendous turnout that the rally had garnered on only a few hours’ notice. Earlier that day, he had convened the Parisian intelligentsia and political class at his home. Reverence before the natural moral authority of the Ukrainians was the only thing that united a disparate assortment of quarrelsome politicians, journalists, and writers. President Hollande had also received the Ukrainians very warmly. He was confident that on this occasion Putin would make hubristic mistakes that would bring down his regime. “Putin will only remain stronger than us if we choose to be weak. He will lose if, and only if, we stand by our principles,” he explained in his earnestly staccato style. “If we are weak, he will be strong!”
Answering my final question, as to how he saw the responsibility of France or the French intelligentsia to the Ukrainians in their darkest hour, BHL was in his element: “The merit and primary responsibility of France is to ring the bell! Europe currently has no will, no head, and no courage. In Mali, as in Libya and as in some ways also with the case of Syria, France took the lead!” Finishing his dinner, the philosophe bade the table a hasty farewell and then dashed off purposefully into the night. And so, my adventures with the world’s most influential public intellectual—and maybe the last Jewish intellectual of any real global consequence—began.
Several weeks after the Ukrainian rally, I was invited to lunch at the enormous duplex apartment that BHL shares with his third wife, movie star Arielle Dombasle. Ascending a circular staircase to the building’s final floor, one is met at the door by a white uniformed butler. The apartment is a velvety cross between the ancient civilization wing of an art museum and an Oriental palazzo. The long divans are surrounded by extensive collections of curios: reclining golden Buddhas, coffee tables littered with knickknacks and heaps of crystals and statuettes. One can imagine it is the sort of apartment Lawrence of Arabia would have found himself ensconced in at the end of his life if he had survived his motorcycle accident. There is a view of the Palais de l’Élysée out of a window from which BHL can keep a close eye on the seat of power of the French state.
How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself