BEIRUT: More than 20,000 French citizens in the country celebrate France’s National Day Monday, with Ambassador Patrice Paoli using the occasion to call for the respect of international borders and Lebanese unity to prevent the country from being drawn into regional conflicts.
“We support a citizen-based vision [for Lebanon] which is tolerant of religious and cultural differences, and in which minorities are respected,” he told The Daily Star last week.
The National Day will be marked at the ambassador’s Residence des Pins, the same place where in 1920 French General Henri Gouraud first defined the modern borders of Greater Lebanon, one of many Middle Eastern nation states carved out of the fallen Ottoman Empire by France and Britain following the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
Today, as areas of Iraq and Syria increasingly fragment into warring fiefdoms controlled by sects, the wisdom of those borders is increasingly being called into question.
“It’s a statement of fact, not a condemnation of the British or us, that there are certain areas in Syria and perhaps in Iraq that are currently under the control of certain factions, others under control of the state,” said Paoli. “For us the solution lies in respecting recognized states and internationally delineated borders.”
“We can judge the history behind these borders, but there is also a time when we must take a political and legal approach to the matter,” he added. “It’s not our objective to preserve a dated accord but we must live with its heritage.”
Critics accuse the Sykes-Picot pact of inadvertently stoking religious strife by forcing different confessions together in heterogeneous states, but Paoli countered by saying that Lebanon – a melting pot of sects – was an example for religious tolerance in the region. He pointed specifically to the country’s dynamic Christian population as evidence of Lebanon’s commitment to protecting minorities.
“The circumstances in Iraq, in Syria and to an extent in Egypt have led [the international community] to be concerned for the future of Christians in the region,” he said.
“It’s not a foreign intervention or protection of the army that will reassure them [Christians] but rather governments that can guarantee the security of all their citizens. It is states that afford people the right to practice their own beliefs freely. We think that Lebanon has the keys to do that.”
A shrewd diplomat with an avuncular smile, Paoli insists that France’s vision for Lebanon has been constant throughout the decades.
His words mirror, almost exactly, Lebanon’s 1926 Constitution, which was inspired by the French Third Republic. At the time, Lebanon was part of the French Mandate, the latter’s hefty colonial sphere of influence in the Middle East.
But gone are the days when French diplomats played kingmaker in the Lebanese political scene. Rather, Paoli insists, the French government’s primary concern is to bolster Lebanese institutions for the benefit of the people.
In this respect, France is particularly concerned about the presidential vacuum.
“It’s not [France] that determines what is good or bad for Lebanon,” said Paoli. “But it is illusory to think that Lebanon’s institutions can function properly without a president.”
Yet Paoli insisted that France had no preferred candidate in the election.
He had a clear message for Lebanese politicians, who are at odds over the selection of a candidate for the country’s top Christian post: “You have the keys, use them.”
Paoli further added that France had no position with regard to amending the Lebanese Constitution, describing the matter as “an internal affair.”
He vehemently denied that France had suggested amending the Taif Accords – the 1989 peace agreement that helped bring Lebanon’s 15-year civil war to an end – as Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah accused Paris of doing in a recent speech.
“France never suggested any changes to Taif, although the subject was raised in discussions with other international actors. France has always supported Taif. We have never called for a new national pact,” he said.
Deep fissures in the political arena pose a threat to the country’s stability and solvency, Paoli warned.
“Today, the Lebanese political process is totally blocked,” he said. “We know that such divisions affect the security apparatuses. We’re seeing news from Tripoli that is not encouraging.”
“The regional situation shows how dangerous divisiveness can be,” he added.
However, the ambassador said that the creation of a national interest government in February was a positive sign.
“The best example that Lebanon can give to the region, and which the creation of the national unity government illustrated, is that people can get along with one another. What we see in Iraq today is the negation of this idea.”