Paris rekindles old alliance

Lebanese gamble: Chirac visit aims to put France back on Middle East map
Click to follow


Jacques Chirac cannot say he hasn't been warned. If he does not denounce the "foreign occupation" of Lebanon, the ex-rebel general, Michel Aoun, pontificated from his Paris exile yesterday, then Mr Chirac's visit to Lebanon today will represent support for "a collaborationist government".

The Lebanese ex-president Amin Gemayel, whose period of office here was characterised by political manipulation and corruption, told readers of Le Figaro that the nation preparing to receive the French leader was "under the jackboot". Will Mr Chirac notice on his arrival, Mr Gemayel asked acidly, how the walls of Beirut airport are covered with portraits of President Hafez el-Assad of Syria?

Indeed, they are. Dozens of them; and only a few of President Hrawi of Lebanon, Mr Chirac's host. But Mr Chirac is not going to damage France's relations with Syria for Messers Gemayel and Aoun any more than he is going to break off relations with the Lebanese government if this year's parliamentary elections are not free and fair. Nor is Mr Chirac likely to smile at a trade union demonstration outside the parliament building, which is intended to embarrass his old friend, Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister.

First and foremost, the Chirac visit is about "la gloire de la France" and his country's seemingly endless "mission civilisatrice" in the Arab world. Its long, often bloody and sometimes very odd relationship with Lebanon goes back to the crusades, when the local Maronites unwisely joined forces with the Christian "Franj" against the Muslims of Arabia.

In 1860, France sent an army to protect the same Maronite community after the Christian-Druze war. And in 1920, the one-armed First War hero General Henri Gouraud turned up in Beirut on the authority of the League of Nations and carved the totally artificial state of Lebanon out of Syria.

France's League mandate, ostensibly shouldered on behalf of those Arab nations which were not yet "ready" for independence, officially ended in 1946; some would say it goes on for ever. The Christian majority of the 1920s is now a minority, but one which still looks to France for inspiration and protection, as General Gouraud no doubt intended it should. French is the second language of Lebanon, whose Christians give their sons French names, send them to French universities, buy French literature at cut prices and read local French newspapers and magazines.

France joined the multinational force's doomed mission to Lebanon in 1982 and shared its martyrdom when a Shiite suicide bomber blew up the French military headquarters the following year. Less honourable missions have included that of a French ministerial bodyguard who turned out to have been smuggling weapons out of civil war Lebanon and the visit of Francois Leotard to General Aoun in 1989, a trip for which the newly-elected leader of the French centre-right UDF coalition was rewarded with a totally worthless Lebanese passport by the grateful general.

Mr Chirac's journey has been preceded by those of Philippe Seguin, the president of the French assembly, Herve de Charette, the Foreign Minister, and the former interior minister Charles Pasqua. Nevertheless, today's state visit has importance for both sides. The Hrawi-Hariri government has been isolated by the US travel ban - to be lifted if Lebanon will stop the Hizbollah attacking Israeli occupation soldiers - and France's support for Lebanon is a symbol of the country's continuing links with the West.

Mr Chirac will address parliament, visit Mr Hariri and the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, sign two financial assistance programmes, visit French UN troops in southern Lebanon and possibly express support for a French peacekeeping role here when - if - there is peace with Israel.

In reality, it is the decreasing likelihood of such an accord that makes Mr Chirac's visit all the more important. The collapse of the American- Israeli "peace process" is forcing Europeans to search for new policies in the region on the grounds that Europe will remain a neighbour of the Arabs long after the Oslo agreement is a dead letter.

And if a new peace process must return to the principles of UN resolutions 242 and 338 - total Israeli withdrawal in return for the security of all states in the area - then France's seat on the Security Council will give it a casting vote in the next attempt to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.