Bernard-Henri Lévy is sort of a big deal in France. It’s been said that he has no equal in the United States, which is undoubtedly true, as most Americans wouldn’t be able to spot a philosopher if they were put in a time machine and sent back to ancient Greece. In France, however, Lévy enjoys the same level of fame as rock or movie stars, and is referred to simply as “BHL.”
Lévy is often regarded as a flamboyant figure, and his penchant for grabbing attention through the media rubs many people the wrong way. He’s often pegged as a spurious PR man, shrewd enough to leverage his impeccable connections (Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Pinault, a billionaire businessman, to name a couple) and wealthy enough (his father owned a successful timber company) to gallivant around the globe, writing about issues of concern while transmitting his self-righteousness back home. Thing is, he doesn’t really give a shit what anybody thinks. Whether you think his intentions are misplaced, or that he is a modern-day saint, fact is he’s simply a man of action.
Most wealthy 62-year-old Frenchmen with his resume would probably spend their time in Agadir cultivating a tan the shade of chocolate pudding. Instead, Lévy likes to purposefully place himself in war zones and other high-risk areas. In the 90s it was Bosnia, where he actively—and successfully—helped bring attention to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. During the aughts he was an important voice in ensuring the world didn’t turn a blind eye to the crisis in Darfur. He also spent time in Afghanistan as then French President Jacques Chirac’s special envoy, before heading to Pakistan to investigate the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded in 2002.
His most recent cause célèbre took him to Libya where, after having met with the Libyan National Transition Council members, he called up Sarkozy and arranged a meeting between the two parties. Next thing you know France, Britain, and the US are bombing the shit out of Gaddafi.
I met Bernard on a sunny Sunday morning at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, unsure of what to expect. Speaking in English, his second tongue, he was pleasant enough. He ordered me tea. We spoke about Libya, notorious French author Michel Houellebecq, and the benefits of being disliked by the public and the press.
Vice: You’ve gained attention recently for acting as a sort of conduit between the Libyan Rebel Council and Nicolas Sarkozy. How did you first make contact with the rebels?
BHL: I went there as a writer and a journalist, and in the process of my work—in the process of my investigation—I got in touch with the National Council for Transition. It was sort of an achievement since, up to this time, Mr. Abdul Jalil had hardly, if ever, spoken. For security reasons his location was kept secret, so I was lucky. Or patient enough, I don’t know.
What was your impression of the Council?
They are not Churchillian democrats, obviously. Democracy and liberalism are probably not as deep rooted in them as they are in Americans or the French. But my impression was that they have absolutely decided to break with the regime. They’re secular Muslims, western-oriented, and without a doubt people with whom a long term political relationship is possible.
Are you concerned by reports that some of the rebels have links to al-Qaeda?
No. It’s just stupid—so how could I be concerned? Those reports were started by Gaddafi himself. Then strange and unverified information was reported in the Italian daily newspaper, Sole 24 Ore. Of course you have some Libyans in the group who fought in Iraq, but to jump from that fact to the conclusion that the rebels would be invaded by al-Qaeda is just stupid.
Will these revolutions be good for the West, or should we take a wait and see approach?
Number one: They are inescapable—unavoidable. They will go to the end. The only question is the price. How many dead to get there? And can we avoid these deaths? Number two: Will we, the West, be on the right side or the wrong side? Do we want to be the last ramparts of dictators who treat their people like cattle, or do we want to be faithful to our values of freedom and so on? It is in the best interest of the West to say, “These people who are taking our values and making a flag with them—we are with them.” Number three: What will happen after that? Of course it will not be a path of roses. Of course revolutions sometimes have unexpected results. The French Revolution ended in terror, we know that. But the outcome may also be unexpectedly favorable.
What’s the ideal outcome of the military operation in Libya?
The quick departure of Gadhafi.
Kill him? Let him go into exile? Put him on trial?
Ideally he goes on trial. He goes on trial for all his crimes. Twelve hundred people shot in the Tripoli jail 14 years ago. Lockerbie. The IRA in Ireland who were paid by him. So many terrorist attacks against Israel; against the free world; against his own people. For this of course the ideal would be that he has a fair judgment against him.
You know America well and have written extensively on the country in books like American Vertigo. The popular belief now is that America is in decline. Do you agree with this assessment?
In a way, yes. The industrial rise of China, Brazil, and India implies the relative decline of the West and of America. But these sort of circumstances, like Libya, are key circumstances. Either we help the forces of democracy or we turn our heads—we wash our hands with the blood and ashes of Libya, Syria, Egypt, and so on. And then it will be much worse than a decline: we will be lost.
How do you feel Obama has handled the situation in the Middle East?
I hope he stays faithful to his Cairo speech. You cannot on one side say, “We are against the radical Muslims and we are in favor of democracy in the Muslim world,” and when these Democrats stand up, abandon them. So there is a problem of consistency. I hope Obama will be consistent enough to put his acts in agreement with his words.
The English language edition of your 2009 novel Public Enemies, an epistolary exchange between you and the author Michel Houellebecq, was recently released. How did you two arrive at this project?
It is an interesting story. I did not know him beforehand. We had met briefly once or twice but that was all.
He’s a controversial figure in France. Did you have any opinion of him—good or bad?
So-so. So-so. One night—I don’t know why—I received a text from him telling me that he was feeling bad, that he felt his life was a failure, and that he was close to being finished with everything. So I sent him a text back saying, “Wait a minute, I happen to be in Paris, before making radical decisions let’s have dinner.” We had dinner and he said to me, “I have problems with my wife, with my mistress, with my dog, and, on top of everything, Paris is disgusting, there is nobody left to debate with.” So I replied “Your wife I cannot help you with; your mistress even less so; your dog even less so… but you say there’s nobody left to debate with? On this, at least, I can help. Let’s try.” That was the beginning of the book.
What was your impression of Houellebecq? Did you get to know him, both as a person and as an artist?
As an artist, to be frank, I really discovered him at this time. During the course of the debate I read all of his work, which I had not done before.
What did you think of it?
I admire his work. The man became a friend, and today I find him brave, courageous, completely original, and completely daring, with no care of what people will say—he just says what he thinks. He’s generous, friendly, and much less cynical than he is generally considered. As for the work: again, great!
So do you think he gets a bad rap from the press and public?
He probably cultivates it. It’s so clever to have a bad reputation. It’s so comfortable to have a bad reputation.
Because you can hide behind it.
So it allows you more freedom?
It’s like a smokescreen, and you are free behind it. I love my bad rep.
You don’t have to live up to some public perception of yourself.
Absolutely. And I think that Houellebecq thinks the same.
You’re from Paris and keep a home there, but you also spend a lot of time in New York City. Do you enjoy the relative anonymity the city provides?
Of course. You are more free when you are anonymous. When everybody knows you, freedom is more limited. But, you know, be careful of people who tell you “Oh, stardom is a nightmare! I cannot stand it.” This is never completely true. There is a lot of hypocrisy behind that.
Do you think you will become a household name here like you are in France, or do you think it would be impossible for a public intellectual to accrue such celebrity in America?
Probably not. I have never wanted to be famous. I don’t care about that. What I care about is that my ideas get through. In America Who Killed Daniel Pearl? was a bestseller. It might have inspired a few decision makers in Washington about the Pakistani question. That I’m glad for.
And American Vertigo?
It was a New York Times bestseller, too. And that was important to me because I wanted to express my love of America and also my criticism of some aspects of the American way of life.
Interview by Zach Pontz