Surprise awaits Chirac in Rue 80

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The Independent Online
THE visit to Charles de Gaulle's old home was meant to be a secret detour for President Jacques Chirac as he went from a victorious press conference to the embassy reception for 4,000 guests.

But when the motorcade reached the three-storey villa in what is now a poor neighbourhood of west Beirut, hundreds of Beirut Muslims had gathered outside. If Mr Chirac regarded the Christian Maronites as France's traditional allies in Lebanon, he must have been amazed at his reception.

Scarved women ululated while young Muslim men chanted the old tribal promise to "sacrifice our blood, our souls" for their visitor. Mr Chirac soaked it up, hands raised like a prize-fighter, before looking at the decaying shrine of his supposed mentor, General de Gaulle. Or Commandant de Gaulle as he then was, a young French mandate officer who rented rooms on the second floor between November 1929 and January 1932, in the days when France rather than Syria was the dominant power in Lebanon, indeed when Paris regarded Lebanon as virtually a part of metropolitan France.

The French mandate which de Gaulle once served was not a success. Riots against French rule were bloodily suppressed, and Churchill almost sent British troops in when de Gaulle's Free French appeared unwilling togrant independence after the Second World War. But all this was politely ignored as the elderly Marie Ingold took the President to her apartment, heavy with oil paintings and Persian carpets, where the founder of his party once lived.

"In those days, you could see from here to the mountains behind Beirut and the sea on the other side of the house," Mrs Ingold said, looking gloomily at the high-rise buildings that now block the view. Mr Chirac asked how the rear of the building had been damaged, and was told it happened in an Israeli air raid during the 1982 siege of Beirut. "We must fix this," he said. And Rafik al-Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister, agreed.

The ululating started againwhen Mr Chirac walked to the pavements and embraced men and women, kissing them on both cheeks. Was this another message for Syria, one asked oneself? Were these people really so enamoured of the French President, or were they showing their feelings about the "sister" country next door whose 22,000 troops are still in Lebanon?

Had not Mr Chirac that very morning alluded to the fact that Lebanon was not yet "a complete democracy"? And, asked whether he would be visiting Damascus this year, had he not admonished a reporter at the presidential palace by saying that he would not reply to such a question in Lebanon?

Forgotten was the fact that France created Lebanon, carving the state out of Syria for the benefit of the then majority Maronites. "I don't want to interfere in Lebanon's political life," Mr Chirac had told his Lebanese audience at the palace withoutapparent irony. He hoped this year's parliamentary election would be "as fair as possible".

And then again came the declarations of eternal amity. Trust, friendship, faith, love, affection, respect - there seemed no end to his amour. "I do not need a visa to visit Lebanon," he told us. Less of an alliance than a marriage, it seemed, made in heaven and consecrated in Charles de Gaulle's old pied-a-terre.