Robert Fisk: A French colonial legacy of despair

They wanted Lebanon's 'independence' - but they wanted it in France's favour

Saturday 25 November 2006 01:00 GMT

I couldn't help a deep, unhealthy chuckle when I watched the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy arrive outside the wooden doors of Saint George's Maronite Cathedral in Beirut this week. A throb of applause drifted through the tens of thousands of Lebanese who had gathered for the funeral of murdered industry minister Pierre Gemayel. Here, after all, was the representative of the nation which had supported the eviction of the Syrian army last year, whose president had been a friend of the equally murdered ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose support in the UN Security Council was helping to set up the tribunal which will - will it, we ask ourselves in Beirut these days? - try the killers of both Hariri and Gemayel.

Douste-Blazy was aware of all this, of course, and uttered a statement of such self-serving exaggeration that even Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara would have felt jealous. "President Jacques Chirac is the best defender on earth of Lebanon's sovereignty," he proclaimed. "France is determined ... now more than ever (to) defend Lebanon's sovereignty and independence." Now I'm not sure I would want the man who once embraced Saddam Hussein as a close friend to be my greatest defender, let alone my greatest defender "on earth" - funny, isn't it, how the French can never shake off their Napoleonic self-regard - and like the doggy poo on Parisian streets, I'd certainly want to tread carefully around France's interest in Lebanon's "independence".

I hasten to add that - compared to the mendacious, utterly false, repulsively hypocritical and cancerous foreign policy of Dame Beckett of Basra - Chirac's dealings with France's former colonies and mandates are positively Christ-like in their integrity. But the Lebanon that France was to create after the First World War was to be based on the sectarian divisions which the infamous François Georges-Picot had observed earlier as a humble consul in this jewel of the old Ottoman empire, divided as it was between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims and Druze and Christian Maronites - France's favourite community and the faith of the murdered Pierre Gemayel - and the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholics and the Chaldeans and the rest. At that time the Maronites represented a thin majority, but emigration and their propensity for smaller families than their Muslim neighbours steadily turned the Christians into a minority which may now number 29 per cent or less.

But the French wanted the Maronites to run Lebanon and thus after independence bequeathed them the presidency. Sunni Muslims would hold the prime ministership and the Shias, who are today the largest community, would be compensated by holding the speakership of parliament. The French thus wanted Lebanon's "independence" - but they wanted it to be in France's favour.

Two problems immediately presented themselves to the Lebanese. By claiming the largest area which it was possible to rule with the tiniest majority - the Maronite religious leader of the time, Patriarch Hayek, was responsible for this - the Christians ensured that they would soon be outnumbered and thus rule their country from a position of minority power. After Irish partition, old James Craig, the founder of Northern Ireland, was a wiser bird than Hayek. From the historic province of Ulster, he ruthlessly dispensed with the three counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan because their Protestant communities were too small to sustain - and created a new Ulster whose six counties ensured a Protestant majority for decades to come.

The other Lebanese problem - which the people of Northern Ireland will immediately spot - is that a sectarian state, where only Maronites can be the president and where only Sunnis can be the prime minister, cannot be a modern state. Yet if you take away the sectarianism France created, Lebanon will no longer be Lebanon. The French realised all this in the same way - I suspect - as the Americans have now realised the nature of their sectarian monster in Iraq. Listen to what that great Arab historian, Albert Hourani, wrote about the experience of being a Levantine in 1946 - and apply it to Iraq. To live in such a way, Hourani wrote:

"is to live in two worlds or more at once, without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms which indicate the possession of a certain nationality, religion or culture, without actually possessing it. ... It is to belong to no community and to possess nothing of one's own. It reveals itself in lostness, cynicism and despair."

Amid such geopolitical uncertainties, it is easy for westerners to see these people in the borders and colours in which we have chosen to define them. Hence all those newspaper maps of Lebanon - Shias at the bottom and on the right, the Sunnis and Druze in the middle and at the top, and the Christians uneasily wedged between Beirut and the northern Mediterranean coast. We draw the same sectarian maps of Iraq - Shias at the bottom, Sunnis in the middle (the famous "Sunni triangle" though it is not triangular at all) and Kurds at the top.

The British army adopted the same cynical colonial attitude in its cartography of Belfast. I still possess their sectarian maps of the 1970s in which Protestant areas were coloured orange (of course) and Catholic districts were green (of course) while the mixed, middle-class area around Malone Road appeared as a dull brown, the colour of a fine, dry sherry. But we do not draw these maps of our own British or American cities. I could draw a map of Bradford's ethnic districts - but we would never print it. I could draw a black-white ethnic map of Washington - but the Washington Post would never dream of publishing it.

And thus we divide the "other", while assiduously denying the "other" in ourself. This is what the French did in Lebanon, what the British did in Northern Ireland and the Americans are now doing in Iraq. In this way we maintain our homogenous power. Pierre Gemayel grew up in Bikfaya, firmly in that wedge of territory north of Beirut. Many Lebanese now fear a conflict between those who support the "democracy" to which Gemayel belonged and the Shias, the people - in every sense of the word - at the "bottom". And the French are going to ensure the country in which all these poor people are trapped remains "independent".

Quite so. And by the way, when did we ever see an ethnic map of Paris and its banlieues?

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