The French Connection to Lebanon

"The Heart Spoke: A famed maimed old man has come to make whole again, my mutilated nation. The Arm Spoke: With his one remaining arm he brings back to my embrace cities severed from my nation. The Brain Spoke: Beirut shall once more be the capital of my thoughts, the harbor of my nation.”

These words were pronounced on September 1, 1920; gripping, life-giving words issuing from mangled anthropomorphic body parts as opening salvos of an epic poem of national salvation. Written one hundred years ago by Francophone Lebanese poet Charles Corm (1894–1963), The Hallowed Mountain had been a celebration of the day that Greater Lebanon—precursor to the modern crumbling Lebanese Republic—was brought back to life. Swelling with vernal enthusiasm and sprightly national energy, Corm could not have chosen more apt imageries, symbolisms, and historical references with which to introduce his national revival celebration; an ode to a resurrected Lebanon prefaced with an encomium to France, “the mother of all just liberties” as Corm described her, incarnated in the person of Gen. Henri Gouraud (1876–1946), the High Commissioner of the French Republic, the “famed maimed old [friend who had] come to make whole again [a] mutilated nation.”  

Entrusted in 1920 with a League of Nations Mandate charged with building new states on the debris of a defunct defeated Ottoman Empire, Henri Gouraud was a decorated war hero and graduate of France’s venerable Collège Stanislas and the Saint-Cyr military academy. An amputee who had left much of the right side of his body on the battlegrounds of Gallipoli, Gouraud had been the first choice for High Commissioner that the Lebanese Delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, headed by Maronite Patriarch Elias Pierre Hoyek, had feverishly lobbied for. And so, Gouraud’s Republic of Greater Lebanon proclamation act of September 1, 1920, might have been more of a Lebanese-Maronite exercise than a French Colonial project. France was, after all, initially in favor of smaller “ethnic states” mimicking the former Ottoman Vilayets of Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo, among which a largely Maronite Mount-Lebanon as an incarnation of an earlier Ottoman mutasarrifiyya (governorate) by the same name would emerge as a smaller autonomous entity, under French protection. But the Maronites—a minor people by all accounts—would all but force the hand of a “superpower,” impressing upon their French friends to put in place a Grand Liban, a “Greater Lebanon” entity that the Maronites themselves referred to at the Paris Peace Conference as “historic Lebanon, reflecting in its natural historic frontiers the ancient Phoenician homeland.” 

It was with this precedent in mind that Gouraud would solemnly consent to the Maronites’ appeals. Addressing the “Greater Lebanese” (Grand Libanais) then present in Beirut on that auspicious September morning, Gouraud began his proclamation with a reminder to his audience that “the happy lustrous day is upon us, which the ancestors of the Greater Lebanese of today had for so long, and often in vain, yearned for.” And so he would declare in affective veneration the rebirth of “a single ancient nation, rooted in its past, eminent in its future, impavid like its subtle skillful eloquent Phoenician children, [rising] at the foot of majestic mountains [bathed in the holy waters of a] mythical Mediterranean that had once been witness to the fleets of Phoenicia, Greece and Rome.” A reborn Lebanese nation was a French debt of gratitude and a “confirmation of a great and old friendship,” stressed Gouraud; a token, as it were, of France’s recognition of the Lebanese people’s “aspirations, struggles, and triumphs,” and a French “salute to [Lebanon’s] grandeur and might.” 

Historians with too many ideological axes to grind and too few historical nuances to heed could read Gouraud’s and France’s “gesture” as a nefarious colonial exercise. If so, it is strange that France (the “colonial power”) left Lebanon twenty-three years after its supposed act of “colonial fiat,” in 1943, without firing a single shot or imposing a single vestige of “colonial conceit.” And on this centennial anniversary of September 1, 1920, Lebanon teeters on the brink of dissolution.  

On Tuesday, August 4, a massive explosion at least thirty times the size of the U.S. military’s MOAB rocked the Lebanese capital at the Beirut Port Authority. The jolts of the blast were felt as far afield as Cyprus and Jordan, and its physical toll counts to date more than two hundred dead, eight thousand injured and maimed, a major metropolis—the jewel of the Mediterranean—demolished, and over three hundred thousand Beirutis left homeless in urban neighborhoods that have sustained some fifteen billion dollars in property damage. Bruised, grief-stricken, disoriented, demoralized, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets minutes after the blast embarking on the painful task of collecting the dead’s mutilated remains, digging up maimed survivors from underneath collapsed structures, tending to the wounded, cleaning up mounds of mangled iron and glass and concrete, and mending remnants of shattered lives. But in the same breath, and from behind the tears of sorrow and cries of anger, the Lebanese were also demanding accountability. Years of corruption, political cronyism, and governmental servitude to the international narco-terrorist group Hezbollah—a mercenary detachment of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard—had left Lebanon rudderless, in tatters, a servile colonial chattel ruled and fleeced by Iranian proxies in classic colonialist fashion. 

The Lebanese also demanded an international investigation to uncover the causes of a blast they are convinced had its origins in a highly explosive Hezbollah arms stockpile secretly stored in the heart of Lebanon’s largest most populous metropolis. But the Beirut Port Authority, like all of Lebanon’s ports of entry and border crossings, is controlled by Hezbollah, and Lebanon’s ruling elites are in voluntary servitude to the Hezbollah criminal racket. The calls for an international investigation were rejected out of hand by the Lebanese government, led by President Michel Aoun, an aging, bumbling Hezbollah epigone who is in no position to expose his Iranian paymasters to international scrutiny. And so, a “brioche moment” plucked out of the pages of Marie Antoinette’s guide to the French Revolution might have been in the works for Lebanon: a replay of a criminal ruling mafia’s apathy and disdain for a people’s sorrows, which elsewhere in world history had led to the erection of guillotines and gallows. 

In Lebanon’s case, guillotines and gallows may indeed still follow—although one month after the blast, the outpouring of anger and grief and calls for accountability that emanated from the initial trauma seem to be subsiding. The Lebanese are by now accustomed to tragedy, often opting for the immediacy of their proverbial hedonistic joie de vivre as a coping mechanism, rather than waiting for deliberate slow-paced days of reckoning. However, there are a significant number of Lebanese who do not subscribe to the Hezbollah edicts of modern Lebanese history and are at their wits’ ends at their nation’s predicament. Bruised and broken and yet to be defeated, the Lebanese received French president Emmanuel Macron (who visited in a show of support two days following the blast) with jubilation and cries of relief that “Lebanon had finally a president.” Two days after “Armageddon,” the acclaim given the visiting French president had implicitly been an indictment of the Lebanese president, a geriatric, mentally idle quisling whose apathy could not have replicated his French counterpart’s vernal energy, nor imitated the foreigner’s ardent sincerity. And so, not only was le tout Beyrouth acclaiming Macron on August 6, but it was also “welcoming back and confirm[ing] a great and old friendship,” to use the phrase of Macron’s forebear Henri Gouraud one hundred years earlier. Indeed, there were Lebanese voices crying out for the reinstatement of the French Mandate, asking that Lebanon be placed once more under “French protection” securing its wellbeing with international guarantees that would remove the specter of Hezbollah’s police state and bring the country back into the fold of “civilized nations.” 

Noblesse oblige, and not devoid of a Frenchman’s sense of history (and responsibility), Macron repeatedly smiled at the prospect of a “return to the Mandate,” at every turn. But he also assured his desperate Beiruti fans that he was submitting a muscular proposal for a “new national contract” to the Lebanese authorities and that he “will be returning to Beirut on September 1, to face the people’s reckoning.” This promise and the symbolism of its date—even if perhaps only a public relations ploy at the time—was not lost on those Lebanese grasping at straws, craving a French deus ex machina, a return of General Gouraud’s geste du semeur. The symbolism also triggered the ire of resentful post-colonialist gauche caviar leftists, who went apoplectic reading in Macron’s promise of a revival of French imperial hubris. But a brief history lesson with a nuanced attention to the political taxonomy of France’s historic “mission” to the Levant might spare the clueless the strains of misplaced righteous indignation. 

France’s presence in the East had for close to a millennium has been part and parcel of a “moral/spiritual” mission, never a “colonial/imperial” enterprise in the classic sense. Intellectual honesty and historical literacy might go a long way in this regard. To begin with, the 1920-1943 so-called “French Mandate” was not “French” at all, but a “League of Nations Mandate” entrusted to France. In that sense, France was answerable to the League of Nations (as well as France’s own moral/emotive instincts), not baser imperial projects. Sophomoric post-colonialist neuroses about “western imperialistic rapacity” may be allayed by considering the distinction between a “mandate” and a flat out “colonial” exercise. Any online dictionary may be an adequate source to become acquainted with the meanings of those terms, their etymologies, and their historical significance. Likewise, the example of Algeria that some self-righteous “woke” leftists have brandished to establish the evils of French colonialism does not match the case of Lebanon. Lebanon was never a French colony; France never had a colonial policy vis-à-vis Lebanon; and indeed France never had a “policy” vis-à-vis Lebanon, period. The French Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations (at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, in Colmar, and in Nantes) reveal as much. Moreover, the British Foreign Office archives, the French “archives de l’armée,” and the family archives of General Henri Gouraud himself, shed much light on this fact, which continues to be distorted by bitter, belligerent, historically illiterate demagogic hacks. For the sake of intellectual decency and reasoned dialogue, this ought to stop.

For close to a millennium, dating back to the Crusades, but at least since the early days of the adept “diplomacy” of François I (ca. 1535) and the Capitulations (Imtiyazaat) obtained on behalf of Levantine Christians, and long into the modern era of the “Mandate” from Gouraud’s times to de Gaulle’s to the present, France’s approach to Lebanon had been consistently more emotive than pragmatic. Unlike the British, who had a precise colonial policy, France’s connections to the Levant were primarily sentimental, spiritual, and moral, driven by centuries of emotional attachment. Lebanon, part and parcel of France’s own spiritual foundations as the Elder Daughter of the Catholic Church, was not Algeria (a simple French Département). The British, by contrast, had long had a coherent “Arab nationalist” objective and a well-delineated policy to put that objective in place—a single “Arab Kingdom” forming a “land bridge” area from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, the only way the British were able to bring their objectives to fruition (privileging Arab nationalism at the expense of more authentic, more legitimate, more coherent local identities) was to quash French influence, extinguish France’s “emotional attachment” and commitment to “local identities.” Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot fame) said it best, bragging that the British would succeed in sowing animosity between the Syrians (the inhabitants of the states of the Levant that the French inherited from the Ottomans) and the French. And the British have indeed succeeded, albeit perhaps not yet in the case of Lebanon.  

Macron’s August 6 promise to the Beirutis vowing to return to check in on them on the hundredth anniversary of September 1, 1920, might have simply been a diplomatic bromide. But to many Lebanese—and Frenchmen—France is still attached to Lebanon by links of more than just political expediency. In July 1941, as the Free French were dislodging Vichy in the Levant, Gen. Charles de Gaulle reminded Free Frenchmen and Lebanese alike of France’s millennial indefatigable commitment to Lebanon. Echoing the words of Henri Gouraud two decades earlier, de Gaulle noted how “in the heart of every Frenchman worthy of the name, the mere mention of the word ‘Lebanon’ aroused a particular kind of emotion.” Likewise, the general concluded, “the Lebanese have been the only non-French people whose hearts have never ceased throbbing to the rhythm of France’s own heartbeats.” France has never abandoned Lebanon and the Lebanese, wrote French diplomat and Académicien Gabriel Hanotaux in 1918; “God willing,” he continued, “France shall never abandon them.” Macron echoed those sentiments as he was mobbed by desperate Beirutis seeking a glimpse of him during his visit. “France will never abandon the Lebanese,” he said, exhorting his listeners to “never forget that there will always be a European people, a French people, whose heart will always beat to the pulse of Beirut’s own heart.”

Whatever Macron may make of this old love affair, this longstanding “emotional attachment,” and whether his “promise to return” does bear fruit, Lebanon remains a nation under siege today, a crumbling republic, a giant holding-cell for a demoralized people under occupation. Lebanon is in want of a new social order, a new political contract, a new international regime guaranteeing its safety, its neutrality, its democracy, and the protection of its people. More importantly, perhaps, Lebanon is in want of liberation from the totalitarian theocracy crushing its will to live up to its vocation as the erstwhile “Switzerland of the Middle East,” the exemplar of multicultural, liberal, and libertine cosmopolitan Mediterranean ecumenism. Lebanon today is in dire need of “a famed maimed old man” coming “to make [it] whole again”; an architect spawning a grandiose graceful gesture of creation winnowed out from crippling deformation: “A Venus of Milo! A Nike of Samothrace! A General Gouraud!”, to borrow another image from Charles Corm.

But it seems that on this centennial anniversary of the noble “gesture of Gouraud,” Lebanon is being condemned to continue “waiting for Godot.” In a dystopian turn of events, Macron did, as promised, return to Lebanon on September 1, 2020. Yet instead of carrying with him the promise of the day’s symbolism, instead of carrying out the mission of his 1920 predecessor, helping Lebanon break free “from the heavy hands that have […] tried to stifle it,” Macron brought with him rhetoric, and platitudes, and political expediencies. He ceremoniously planted the twenty-first century’s first Cedrus Libani—the millennial Biblical cedar tree that is identified with Lebanon, that graces its national flag, and that symbolizes the country’s Maronite national church. Macron also bestowed upon the Lebanese diva Fairouz France’s highest civilian honor, the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur—an encomium that once decorated Syria’s own dictator, Bahsar al-Assad. In sum, Macron delivered saccharine sentimentalities bereft of substance and political capital, but to which vulnerable Lebanese skirting disaster remained profoundly sensitive. In real historical terms, the French president channeled Pétain in circumstances that ought to have summoned a de Gaulle. In sum, Macron’s grandstanding in Lebanon mimicked his eloquent politics at home; antsy, vernal, perhaps well-meaning promise that always falls short of expectations. And in the process, Macron all but delivered Lebanon on a silver platter to the salivating palate of Hezbollah, the real power-holders in Lebanon, and the colonial troupes spéciales of a rapacious Islamic Republic of Iran.

Franck Salameh is an ASMEA member and professor of Near Eastern Studies and Chair of the Department of Eastern, Slavic, and German Studies at Boston College.

The opinions expressed here are his own.

Read the original post on The National Interest blog.

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