How a philosopher swayed France's response on Libya

After meeting March 4 with Libyan rebels leaders in Benghazi, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy arranged for them to speak with President Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy arrives for a meeting with emissaries from the Libyan National Council at the Elysee Palace in Paris, March 10, 2010.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the controversial French philosopher, may deserve as much credit for prodding the international community to act on Libya as President Sarkozy.

He worked behind the scenes at the Élysée Palace, encouraging French action while the United States still debated the no-fly zone. Mr. Lévy, who has Mr. Sarkozy's ear, despite differences, has, with other public intellectuals, framed the Libyan conflict as a moment for France to act, to ensure it wouldn't have blood on its hands if Muammar Qaddafi's forces overran the rebel stronghold in Benghazi.

Lévy took up the Libyan cause in earnest after meeting Mustafa Abdul Jalil, former Libyan justice minister and leader of the opposition's National Transition Council (NTC). He traveled to Libya March 4 wearing his journalist's hat – he's on the board of the progressive French daily Libération. During the interview, Lévy asked Mr. Abdul Jalil if the NTC would come to Paris. That night he phoned Mr. Sarkozy: Will the president meet "the Libyan Massouds," he reportedly asked, referencing Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, who is revered in France. The president agreed.

"I called the president of my country from Benghazi to tell him, 'There are people here, good people; these people hold the same values as we do, and they’re going to die to the last one if we allow Qaddafi to go on to the conclusion of his criminal logic. Would you accept to receive them in Paris and thus send a strong signal to the butcher?' Nicolas Sarkozy immediately said yes," Lévy said in an interview with Global Viewpoint Network.

Several days later, three NTC members arrived at the Élysée for a meeting with Lévy, Sarkozy, chief foreign policy adviser Jean-David Levitte, and speech writer Henri Guaino. Soon thereafter, Sarkozy recognized the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya.

At 2 p.m. on March 17, Sarkozy called Lévy to say he had "made his decision," reported Le Figaro, a full-scale push for the no-fly zone. Later that day, the Security Council approved Resolution 1973, which called for protecting Libyan civilians by "all necessary means" short of foreign occupation.

Lévy has long been known for his outspokenness on world affairs. In the 1970s, he was the first leftist intellectual to criticize French silence on Soviet repression. He was involved early on in Bosnia, arguing against French interests that saw a "Greater Serbia" as a "stable Balkans." The siege of Sarajevo and the shooting of civilians was an attack on European values that needed answering, Lévy argued. He convinced French President François Mitterrand to go to Sarajevo.

Lévy is admired for his independence, but often mocked as a pampered radical who has rarely seen a camera he didn't love. He holds the record for the greatest number of crème pies thrown at him (seven) by the Belgian anarchist Noël Godin.

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