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France and Lebanon: the history of a turbulent relationship

French President Emmanuel Macron, gestures before meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, at Beirut International airport, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020
French President Emmanuel Macron, gestures before meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, at Beirut International airport, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020   -   Copyright  Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AP Photo
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French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut this week in a diplomatic move to promote reform in the crisis-stricken country.

It’s Macron's second visit to the Middle Eastern country since the August 4 explosion that destroyed large parts of the capital city, killing 190 and injuring thousands.

Many have questioned whether Macron could help encourage leaders to reform the mismanagement and corruption that the Lebanese blame for the economic crisis and devastating explosion.

Some have commended Macron's leadership after he convened an international donor conference following his first visit, and alongside other countries has joined the effort to help Beirut emerge after the blast.

But others have criticised Macron’s visits to Lebanon, saying it recalls France's colonial past. Lebanon is a former French protectorate and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Macron's visit a "spectacle" that seemed like colonialism.

But what is France's history in Lebanon and how does Macron's role in this crisis recall the two countries' historical ties?

A history of French and Lebanese relations

Lebanon was designated a French protectorate by the League of Nations after the First World War with the aim that Lebanon would later become an independent state instead of being a French colony.

But French influence among the Lebanese predates the mandate that linked the two countries politically.

Historically, French influence in Lebanon stemmed from close ties with Maronites, who are Eastern Catholics.

French influence among Maronites "is linked to the fact that France then 'eldest daughter of the Church' exercised from the 17th century a duty to protect Middle Eastern Christians attached to Rome, that is to say, Catholics," historian Sylvia Chiffoleau with France's Centre for National Scientific Research told Euronews.

France would intervene to protect Christians in 1860 when civil war broke out between the Maronites and the Druzes, a minority branch of Islam. And throughout the 19th century, many Maronites became French speakers through French missionary education, according to Chiffoleau.

Between 1920 and 1943, the State of Greater Lebanon existed under a French Mandate. During this time, it became the Lebanese Republic.

The first post-independence president was Bechara el Khoury in 1943, who opposed French influence.

The mandate's legacy includes the French schools that trained much of the country's elite and the confessional government splitting power between Christians and Muslims.

"When the Lebanese Republic proclaimed its independence in 1943, it counted on its territory more than 400 French schools where most of its political, economic and intellectual elite were trained," writes Lebanese historian Antoine Charif Sfeir in French newspaper Le Figaro.

"Closely linked to the new ruling classes of the country, these schools gradually adapted, recruiting more Lebanese."

They would contribute to lasting French lingual and cultural influence in Lebanon.

Influence of French leaders in Lebanon after independence

Since the 1950s, "the links between France and the Maronites have weakened: France's influence in the regions has faded, the notion of 'protection' is no longer there," explains Chiffoleau, who teaches Middle Eastern history at Sciences Po Lyon.

The first president of France's fifth republic to visit the country was François Mitterrand, according to French news reports. He travelled to Beirut after 58 French parachutists died in 1983 in a Beirut bombing.

Mitterrand had sent French troops to the country as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to defend Lebanon, in the throes of a civil war between Christians and Muslims that would last until 1990.

French President Jacques Chirac, also seen as engaged in the Arab world, was very close to the Hariri family, which continues to exert power in Lebanese politics. He counted former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, as one of his friends.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri attended Chirac's funeral in Paris in 2019.

CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP Photo
Jacques Chirac, left, Rafik Hariri's widow Nazek Hariri, centre, and Bernadette Chirac, right, attend a gathering in commemoration of Rafiq Hariri in 2007.CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP Photo

Newly appointed Lebanese Prime Minister Mustapha Adib was seen as in part being appointed due to support from Saad Hariri's movement and agreement from Hezbollah, the Islamist political party and militant group that holds seats in Lebanon's parliament.

But these relationships are largely different from the ties that connected Maronites to France for centuries, linked more to a shared language.

"The proximity of the French elites to the Lebanese elites, whether Christian or Muslim, helps to hide from the eyes of international public opinion the reality of this country, which is not made only of chic and wealthy Francophones but of mostly poor people who were never talked about before the 2019 economic crisis," said Chiffoleau.

"French politicians have also regularly mobilised for Lebanon in recent decades," said Aurélie Daher, a researcher at the Paris Dauphine University and specialist in Lebanese politics.

Macron, for instance, intervened in 2017 when Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his post while visiting Saudi Arabia.

"France is a major economic partner of Lebanon and the Lebanese diaspora in France is one of the first Lebanese diasporas," added Daher.

Macron's second visit to Lebanon

Macron's first visit to Beirut days after the explosion rocked the city was met with early hope that he could influence the ruling class, with a curious petition emerging demanding the country become a French protectorate once again.

But critics accused Macron of using the crisis to wield further influence in the region.

His second visit to Lebanon has since been "largely symbolic" and included a meeting with beloved Lebanese singer Fairouz to whom he presented the Legion of Honour.

"Lebanese people, you are like brothers to the French. I promised you: I will come back to Beirut to take stock of the emergency aide and help you build the conditions for reconstruction and stability," Macron tweeted on Tuesday.

In an interview with Politico, Macron emphasised that the next three months would be fundamental for reform but that it wasn't his job to interfere in Lebanese politics. It remains to be seen how his influence could impact French influence in the region.

"Macron can, through France's position within the international community, participate in the pressure that will be put on the next government in negotiations with an economic content," explains Daher.

"But when it comes to political reforms, in reality, Mr Macron cannot do anything."