Friday, 25 March 2011

Sarkozy gives celebrity philosopher unofficial foreign post

President Nicolas Sarkozy has given the waning influence of France's Left Bank intellectuals a huge boost by giving the country's best-known philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy the role of "unofficial foreign minister". BHL, as the celebrity open-shirted thinker is known in France, has been credited with playing an instrumental role in Mr Sarkozy's diplomatic offensive over Libya.

France was the first nation officially to recognise the opposition Libyan Transitional National Council as "the legitimate representative of the Libyan people", on March 10. And it transpires the man who brokered the meeting between the Council and Mr Sarkozy was Mr Lévy, a self-styled "militant philosopher".

BHL, who impresses and irritates in equal measure in France, met rebels while on a visit to Benghazi. He then returned and met Mr Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace, where he convinced the President the opposition were "good people". Mr Sarkozy's special adviser, Henri Guaino, who once dismissed the long-locked thinker as "a pretentious little ----- who doesn't love France", could only look on.

Alain Juppé, the new foreign minister, was widely reported to have been kept in the dark about Mr Sarkozy's decision to recognise the rebels, leading the press to dub Mr Lévy France's "joint" head of foreign affairs.

"This a great media stunt by Nicolas Sarkozy to rally a well-known, highly visible intellectual," said Rémy Rieffel, author of a book on intellectuals in France's Fifth republic.
Often mocked as a philistine, Mr Sarkozy has taken to inviting intellectuals, artists and writers to the Elysée for dinner to sound them out, according to Le Monde newspaper. One guest, Patrick Besson, a commentator and writer, said: "I got the impression I was his gym teacher without the gym."

Despite Mr Lévy's unprecedented political role, Mr Rieffel said that the influence of intellectuals in French public life cannot compare to their post-war heyday with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre. "In France we are in a period of low tide in terms of intellectual debate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, intellectuals have lost a huge amount of power, which pales into comparison with the ideas bubbling twenty or thirty years ago."

Mr Lévy is often criticised – like Mr Sarkozy – for vanity and self-aggrandisement, and was once accused of making up an "on the ground" war zone report in Georgia.