Beirut, France and the History of Cultural RelationsSeptember 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.