On Gouraud Street in the gentrified Jemmayzeh neighbourhood of Beirut, now entirely reduced to rubble, a distraught Lebanese woman appealed to French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the city last week.
“I want to go back to my home,” she said. Macron responded by saying “and I’m here to help you.” No scene could better epitomise France’s role as “la tendre mère du Liban,” Lebanon’s tender mother, and Lebanon’s role as France’s “recognised place” in the Middle East.
The relationship between Lebanon and France dates back centuries, with every French president expressing it in his own way. It was the most natural thing in the world for Macron to rush to Beirut within 48 hours of the explosions that almost totally levelled the port area on 4 August.
What was unnatural was how within hours of the French president’s arrival some 50,000 Lebanese had signed a petition calling for the restoration of the French mandate over their country, reviving the age-old debate between proponents of “France-looking Phoenicia” and advocates of “Pan-Arabism that will brook no compromise on Arab unity.”
Macron later appeared in Pine Palace, the residence of the French ambassador, where he pledged to coordinate international aid to Lebanon. He paid tribute to French general Henri Gouraud who declared the establishment of “Greater Lebanon” from that same residence in 1920.
Gouraud annexed various coastal towns and Jebel Amel and the Bekaa to Jebel Lubnan (Mount Lebanon) in the mutasarrifate that the Ottoman sultan had created in 1861 in deference to France and other European powers. This “Greater Lebanon,” as he dubbed it, later won its independence from France in 1943 as the “Republic of Lebanon.”
French influence in the country has remained strong, and today about half the country’s one million students are enrolled in French schools, most belonging to Catholic missions. Many of these schools were founded in the latter half of the 19th century.
The French presence in Lebanon, especially the French religious and commercial presence, dates from long before this, however. In 1535, a treaty signed between French king François I and Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent granted France the right to protect Catholics in the Arab provinces under Ottoman control. The treaty granted the Europeans privileges in Ottoman lands, including tax and customs exemptions and exemptions from litigation in local courts.
As a result of this presence, Christians in the Levant in general and in Lebanon in particular were strongly influenced by European ideas.
In 1860, a brutal civil war erupted between the Maronites (Catholics) and the Druze in Mount Lebanon, an area divided between a northern part administered by the Maronites and a southern part administered by the Druze. According to historical sources, the Maronite Church incited Maronite peasants in the southern part to rise up against their Druze overlords.
In the aftermath of the civil war, the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid I, at the behest of France and other European powers, created the Mount Lebanon mutasarrifate, a semi-autonomous political entity subordinate to Istanbul rather than to Damascus, the capital of the Ottoman Syria province.
The mutasarrifate was administered by a Christian appointed by the sultan with the approval of six European powers: France, Italy, Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia. From the mutasarrifate came Greater Lebanon and then the independent Lebanese republic.
Over 330 schools belong to the Catholic school network in Lebanon today, and Beirut is home to many universities in which the instruction is in French, such as the Université La Sagesse, the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK or University of Holy Spirit of Kaslik) and Notre Dame University–Louaize, which are among the top universities in the country.
About half of Lebanese cinema production is French funded. The French Cultural Centre is one of the foremost cultural centres in the country and offers facilities to Lebanese students wishing to study in France.
In addition to the approximately seven million-strong Lebanese community in France, there is also a large French expatriate community in Lebanon numbering in the thousands.
It was not until 1983 that a French president visited Beirut as the capital of an independent state after the 1983 Beirut bombing. In the 1950s and 1960s, when tensions between pan-Arabists and Lebanese “Phoenician” nationalists were at their height, even Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser could not visit Beirut, let alone French leaders.
In the 1970s, the country was plunged into a civil war that inhibited contacts with outside parties apart from those who funded the various sides. The 1983 bombing of the Drakkar building where the French contingent of the UN peacekeeping force was stationed was an exception, and French president François Mitterrand’s visit to the Lebanese capital at the time set a tradition for the occupants of Élysée Palace.
Under French president Jacques Chirac, Lebanon came to occupy a special place in French foreign policy because of the friendship between Chirac and former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. When Chirac died in 2019, Lebanese newspapers paid tribute to “Lebanon’s dear friend.”
Macron cannot “impose” a new state on the Lebanese like Gouraud did a century ago. But he can “propose” a new sociopolitical contract to Lebanese politicians, as he pledged to do during his visit to Gouraud Street. Lebanon needed sweeping reforms, he said, “or else it will sink.”
This latter-day Gouraud did not clarify what reforms he would propose, but it was understood they would have to be sweeping. Expectations of him, at least among the crowds in the Jemmayzeh district, are high.
“Mr President, you are standing in a street named after General Gouraud who liberated us from the Ottomans. Today, you need to liberate us from the politicians,” one person said. “Do not give money to the government. Make sure it goes directly to its intended beneficiaries,” said another. “I will,” vowed Macron, who said he felt it “a duty to show solidarity” with the Lebanese people.
Although less than one per cent of Lebanese signed the petition calling for the return of the French mandate, it reveals the extent to which a large portion of Lebanese are attached to France. The idea of France as “la tendre mère” may sound sarcastic coming from the mouths of Lebanese Muslims with Arab nationalist leanings, but coming from Lebanese Christians it is an expression of admiration and respect, as Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, observed in a tweet.
Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its allies in the Lebanese government believe that calls for an international investigation into the explosions are “a waste of time,” as Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said.
Many Lebanese believe that Hizbullah and its ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by Aoun, are to blame for Lebanon’s ruin. They argue that Hizbullah and the FPM’s political stances have lost their country aid from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and thus the higher standards of living than Lebanese resources alone can provide.
The response of Hizbullah has been that “the resistance has preserved Lebanon’s independence.” The Shiite party also claims that its ministers have not been involved in corruption, implying that it was Sunni, Druze and Christian politicians who have been living off Gulf money for the past 30 years.
Saudi Arabia brokered the 1989 Taif Agreement that brought an end to the civil war. Riyadh then backed its old friend Rafik Al-Hariri, and Saudi billions were instrumental in reconstructing the country and effacing the effects of war.
Now another reconstruction is needed. The international donors conference to support Lebanon that Paris hosted last weekend obtained more than $200 million in pledges. However, this sum falls far short of the losses the country has sustained, which the mayor of Beirut has estimated at $10-15 billion.
A Ministry of Economy statement stressed that Lebanon would not be able to overcome the crisis on its own. But will aid be released to a country that has experienced many months of popular protests against a political class accused of addicting the country to debts that Lebanon cannot repay?
Who will serve as an alternative to a political elite that has governed in sectarian ways for so long? Even if “non-denominational” elections were held, as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has demanded, the vast majority of Lebanese would probably vote along denominational lines.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly