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 a professor of Near Eastern Studies and Chair of the Department of Eastern, Slavic, and German Studies at Boston College. He is the author of The Other Middle East (Yale, 2017) and a memoir of Lebanese Jewry, Fragments of Lives Arrested (Palgrave, 2019)