Background Report the Role of France in Lebanon
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Background Report the Role of France in Lebanon

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France is shocked, surprised and pained at the losses it has suffered in Lebanon: officially, two dead and nine wounded, including the commander of the French paratrooper unit serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Col. Jean-German Salvan.

The public, which has been shown terrifying scenes from Lebanon on television, wonders aloud: “Do we need to suffer dead and wounded?” The press is critical, with one paper, Le Monde, going so far as to compare France’s involvement in Lebanon with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War; many French officials grumble privately but nonetheless audibly that men and money are being spent pointlessly and uselessly abroad while urgently needed at home.

The French Administration and even the government itself had always been deeply divided over the very principle of a French armed involvement in Lebanon. The Quai d’Orsay and most other French ministries–with the exception of the Ministry of Defense–had energetically opposed all plans to send French troops on “peacekeeping” missions to Lebanon.

These officials pointed out that such an involvement would endanger France’s friendly relations with both Israel and the Arab world. They also warned that a relatively small French contingent would by necessity become even larger as more men and equipment would be needed. This would rapidly become, they said, a financial burden and eventually weaken French participation in European defense measures, thus creating friction with its NATO partners.


Certain ministers also warned that on the morrow of an election campaign which showed that Frenchmen are mainly preoccupied with living standards, employment and wages, few in France would support a military campaign, whatever its purpose. Frenchmen, they said, wanted more money and not more soldiers and more guns. The man who overruled them was President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. It was on his personal decision that all those concerned–the other United Nations Security Council members, the UN Secretariate and the Arab states–decided to accept France’s offer to supply troops to UNIFIL.

Giscard, who in spite of the passing of the years still lives in the shadow of Gen. Charles deGaulle, is pursuing the dream of turning France into a “major power” with an active role in international affairs.

All those who know him well say that he wants to go down in history as the man who succeeded where deGaulle failed: give back to France the brilliance and prestige she had enjoyed in former years. He sees two areas in which France can play a role, equal if not superior, to the Big Powers: Africa and the Middle East.

It is this quest which prompted Giscard to intervene in Africa. After a slight participation in the Mauritanian fighting, France, far from the limelight of the world press is waging a mini-war in its former colony of Chad. Paratroopers, tanks and even planes have been engaged in the fighting.

Giscard confidantes say the President is convinced that France can save Africa for the West and that France is better equipped historically and psychologically to oppose the takeover by leftist revolutionary elements. “We are still popular in Africa,” French officials explain. “We can better than anyone else oppose Cuban penetration.”


Giscard’s great challenge had always been the Middle East. During the Lebanese civil war two years ago, Giscard offered to send French troops to keep the peace. His proposal was for an independent French force not linked either to the UN or to any other organization. It was “France’s traditional responsibility in the area to send men and weapons,” said French pro-Giscard officials at the time of the civil war in Lebanon. Giscard was surprised and, circles close to him say, deeply hurt when all the Arab states without exception turned down his offer. Apparently he had not given up.

As Israel announced its withdrawal from Lebanon, French Ambassadors in all the world capitals informed the countries concerned that France was prepared to supply the “fighting men” for UNIFIL.

Short of other volunteers, the Security Council accepted and the French paratroopers stationed near Toulouse were airlifted to Beirut amidst a fanfare of government inspired publicity. Most Frenchmen treated the whole matter as a publicity stunt, which might cause political complications. Few realized that it might soon have tragic consequences.


Now that France is counting its first dead and wounded, most political circles are still trying to fathom what were Giscard’s real political intentions. It is generally believed that the French President was silently pursuing a policy aiming at the partition of Lebanon–a situation in which he believed and apparently still believes–in which the Christian faction, once an independent state, would turn to France for political and material aid.

Giscard, according to this interpretation, is convinced that a Christian-dominated state or even “canton” would opt for France and not for Israel as their main protector. Thus, at a time of general and international decolonization, Giscard could point to one exception to this rule: a former colony which 33 years after France’s withdrawal, turns back to its former ruler out of its own free will.

According to these sources, Giscard is convinced that all those concerned–Syria and Israel–would favor such a French return to the Middle East as both Damascus and Jerusalem would profit in their turn. Under the Giscard dream, Syria and Israel would share in this partitioning of Lebanon and thus support France’s plan.

Originally, the Elysee circles felt that even 1000 men were all that was needed to stabilize or destabilize Lebanon, according to the viewpoint taken. With this number, the Elysee felt that even a different solution to the Lebanese drama could still give France a major influence in that country and thus indirectly in the Middle East. It now seems that this dream, as most French officials feared from the start, is shattered and that France might be doomed to send more men and equipment for a war which is not hers.

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