Thursday, January 19, 2006

France's Prophet Provocateur

from Vanity Fair, January 2003

The most media-savvy French philosopher since Sartre, Bernard-Henri Lévy is a globe-trotting champion for peace and social justice—when he's not making waves in the cafés of Paris. A profile of the passionate former libertine and his movie-star wife, Arielle Dombasle.

At dinner in Montparnasse last spring with the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, his wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, and Nicole Wisniak, the witty creator of Egoïste magazine, I looked at Bernard-Henri and said, "Who are you?"

We had been talking for weeks. I had interviewed him in Marrakech and Paris, read his books, read his columns, seen him on TV, read the torrent of words that poured from all sections of the French press at his every move, seen people come alive at the sight of him, heard him say, "I am someone who thinks he can influence things and do it with fire and passion and energy, and then the other side of me speaks up and says, 'Just write,'" and watched him run a meeting as council president of the egghead TV station Arte, yet the more I saw, the less I knew.

"Bernard, who are you?," I repeated. Dombasle was eating wild rice, Wisniak was playing with an antique gold watch they had given her, and Lévy was sitting in the late François Mitterrand's customary corner seat at Le Duc. He looked at me with his intense, dark eyes and said with a loving smile, "You tell me."

Bernard-Henri Lévy, known to the French by his initials, B.H.L., and Arielle Dombasle are the most famous couple in France. He's a unique figure, an action-driven intellectual who moves fast, writes fast, and is listened to with respect. Lévy's access to power and speed of action are virtually without precedent. Philosopher, publisher, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, defender of causes, libertine, and provocateur, he is somewhere between gadfly and tribal sage, Superman and prophet; we have no equivalent in the United States. Lévy represents no party and holds no job or elected office. Every year, because of his position with Arte, the government contacts him to ask if he wants the Légion d'Honneur, and every year he says no. The question most often asked about him is not whether he's sincere but whether he's real. Not since André Malraux has a French intellectual managed to be so present on so many fronts.

Joan Juliet Buck

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