But these two personas can’t really be separated; the grandstanding BHL infects Lévy’s humanitarianism, too. In June, Lévy flew to Jerusalem for a 90-minute audience with Benjamin Netanyahu and told the Israeli prime minister (and subsequently the press) that the Libyan rebels were prepared to normalize relations with Israel and had deputized him, Lévy, to bring the news to Israel. This news, once it made headlines, alarmed the Libyan rebels, who rushed to issue a statement saying Lévy was not operating on their behalf and that, in fact, they had never discussed Israel with him at all.
“It’s a kind of pretentious heroism to say that I, I, Bernard-Henri Lévy, can affect events,” says Marty Peretz, Lévy’s friend and editor emeritus of The New Republic. Peretz spends a minute musing over the proper analogy. “The idea of Byron is very deep,” he says. “When I try to conjure an image of Byron, it is open-shirted.”
On May 14, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and a friend of Lévy’s, was arrested in New York, after a Sofitel maid named Nafi Diallo accused him of raping her in his hotel room. Strauss-Kahn claimed consensual sex, even though the two had never previously met and they were in the same room for all of fifteen minutes. The sheer implausibility of that scenario, and the brutal, colonialism-inflected symbolism of the encounter (Diallo was a very poor 32-year-old West African immigrant) had shaped the early coverage. When Strauss-Kahn was arrested onboard an Air France flight scheduled to depart JFK, it seemed to confirm the moral geometry: A powerful man had raped a powerless woman, assuming he’d get away with it.
To Lévy, the morality of the incident was almost precisely the opposite. Lévy wrote a column in the Daily Beast in which he defended Strauss-Kahn and attacked the prosecutors in uncompromising terms. He found it odd, he wrote, that the hotel maid had come in alone—in his experience, New York hotel maids attended to rooms in teams. He suggested a violation; he implied a conspiracy; he adopted the terms of humanitarian outrage.
One day in Paris, when we are sitting in the lobby bar of the Right Bank five-star Hotel le Bristol, I ask Lévy what had motivated this response. “Principle,” he says, gravely. “Principle.” I ask what the principle was. He sighs. “Class justice,” he says. “Twenty years ago, class justice was to be gentle with the rich and terrible with the poor. This was a problem. When you are a rich man, you can escape justice. When you are a poor man, stealing a fruit—how do you say, a pomme?—you went to jail. Today there is a reversal of the process. You have a lot of people who, if you are rich, powerful, and white, do not care if you are guilty or not guilty—you are guilty by principle. It is exactly the same but reversed. And for me, I cannot, I cannot—it is as unbearable as the other one.” On one side, he saw the noble individual, Strauss-Kahn; on the other, the horde.
“In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”
I had first met Lévy earlier that week, at the famed Left Bank intellectual haunt Café de Flore, where our conversation was frequently interrupted by activists and journalists whom Lévy dispatched with his most obviously insincere smile. At the Bristol, he is more relaxed and funnier, and the interruptions are more welcome: a chauffeur delivering advance copies of a magazine, the singer Patrick Bruel introducing his 8-year-old son, Lévy taking a phone call from the son of the president of Senegal—“Karim! Have you seen my book? You and your father both?”
Lévy’s defense of Strauss-Kahn is an aristocrat’s. Paris has a strikingly tiny elite, and its connections are dense and interwoven. You could describe Lévy’s relationship with the French president, for instance, by saying that the two are linked in the humanitarian cause of Libya, or that they have roots in the same posh suburb, or that Lévy is the father of the novelist who was married to the professor who had an affair with the supermodel who later married Sarkozy. Each is true.
But to spend a few days traipsing around Paris in Lévy’s wake is to see a devotion to the ideal of male unfetteredness that is nearly ideological. A few years ago, he gave up his opulent place in Saint-Germain and moved into the Hotel Raphael, a five-star squat a couple of blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. In New York, he lives at the Hotel Carlyle. Lévy also has places in Tangiers and Marrakech and in the south of France, and he visits them each fitfully. “I like to have compartments in my life,” he says. “This is one of the most precious human rights. Not everybody to know everything.” (He also recently told a British magazine that he has never worn a tie in his life. “There was even a diplomatic incident when I met Pope John Paul II,” he said, “but it’s a physical impossibility. I cannot have a shirt buttoned to the neck. I suffocate.”)