Beirut, France and the History of Cultural Relations

September 11, 2013

Working through the backlog of International Herald Tribunes left by my recent trips  I came across this article by Jay Cheshes on the continuing cultural presence of France in Beirut

“A Frenchman can easily live in Beirut without feeling displaced,” said Mr. Gougeon, who moved to the Lebanese capital from Paris in 1999, as he sipped local wine in Villa Clara’s leafy backyard after cooking a dinner of crispy-skinned duck confit and old-fashioned île flottante.

For more than a century, through all manner of turmoil, including a 15-year civil war and, more recently, ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, a distinctly French character has pervaded the city. Much of it is the legacy of the French colonial period — the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943 — but a cultural kinship goes back much further than that.

But how did this cultural kinship come into being?  Well it was deliberately created.  Lebanon, and the Levant more broadly, is the founding site of modern cultural relations work.  From the middle of the 19th century France supported the work of the Lazarist order in developing a network of schools in the region – for the Lazarists education was their secret weapon to defeat the advance of protestant (mainly American) missionaries.  The schools taught French and drew on a mixture of private and state funding from France.  The result was that French came to displace Greek and Italian as the lingua franca of the region. Unable to match the military or economic strength of Britain France chose culture as its instrument.

In turn the Lazarist schools inspired the Alliance Israelite Universelle develop its own network work of schools in the region which in turn provided an inspiration for the Alliance Francaise.  Over the course of the 19th century the ad hoc system of support and encouragement in one region of the world provided the inspiration for France’s global cultural network.

If you are looking for evidence that cultural strategies work France’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean through the century after 1850 provides a pretty good case to look at.  The irony is that a really successful strategy becomes invisible because its results seem so natural.



  1. Links between Middle-East and France started in the Crusades, and the Lebanese coast had a strong presence of the Knights Templars, whose origin and commandment were located in France .
    I’m not sure, but maybe the sharing of the Middle-Eastern ex-Ottoman Empire in 1919 between British and French protectorates followed very ancient relationships .

    • I think that the the French had quite a romantic attachment to the region but they didn’t do much about it. They had nominally supported their missionaries for a long time but in 1825 there were only 11 Lazarists in the whole Ottoman Empire (9 of whom were too old to do anything) but by 1914 there were several hundred French schools so there’s a lot going on before partition. [There’s quite a detailed discussion in Mathew Burrows, ‘Mission Civilisatrice: French Cultural Policy in the Middle East, 1860-1914’ Historical Journal, 29, 1, (1986), 109-35,] In Egypt the British couldn’t understand why the French were so popular

  2. I took a cab in Cairo in 1992, and I remember the taxi driver told me with a light pride that Egypt was following Napoleon’s civil Code . Another day I met a wealthy local lady ( my only wealthy encounter ) who could speak French and told me in Egypt bourgeois and intelluctual society was characterized by the knowledge of French .
    What you say about schools before 1914 makes me wonder even more about the kind of links that remained for centuries after the Crusades between France and Phoenicia …

    • I’m not sure I’d go that far back but the official history of the Cultural Relations Directorate of the Quai d’Orsay starts with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. In the years before the First World War the British couldn’t understand why the French had so much clout in Egypt given that the UK was basically running the place: the answer was that there were scores of French schools and only one British one. If you wanted a European education you went to a French school and what did you learn? How great France was!

  3. All right sir, I like people who like history, whichever their favourite period might be .
    And I’ve the feeling that, around 1900, a naked unashamed nationalism was hammered in every country …

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