Christians in Lebanon and blows dealt by allying with the West
A large number of Christians in Lebanon view the French role in Lebanon negatively and accuse Macron of backing Prime Minister Najib Mikati and "Political Shiism".
Some Christians in Lebanon (Maronites) have always viewed the alliance with France, in particular, and the West, in general, as the guarantor of their existence and influence.
However, looking into the historical trend of French policies in Lebanon after the expansion of American influence in the Middle East indicates that Paris does not have a fixed principled vision of its approach toward the country, as it rather seeks to achieve its political, economic, and cultural interests by supporting the stronger party in the existing political equation (regardless of its sect).
But while the European country pursues its interests, it takes into account the scope of action according to which the United States allows it to act - which falls under the notion of concerted roles between the two powers, where France takes on the part America itself cannot play.
Thus, the timeline of the French policy in Lebanon can be divided into three phases, each of which has its unique characteristics and circumstances.
Phase one: "The political Maronite" and "the compassionate mother"
In 1535, the Ottomans granted France concessions in the Levant, including the right to protect Catholics in Lebanon, which expanded after Louis XIV pledged in 1649 to protect the Catholic Church and all its sects (Maronites). After the French intervened to protect the Christians in Mount Lebanon in the aftermath of the 1860 massacres, the Lebanese Maronite Christians viewed France as their "compassionate mother".
The French support for the Maronites continued during the [French] Mandate period, and France's contribution was clear in perpetuating the rule of the so-called "Political Maronism" or "Maronite Politics".
After Lebanon's independence, Maronite Christians continued to view France as their greatest protector.
Nevertheless, the French did not play a major role in protecting them during the Lebanese civil war, and Paris' moral support for then Army Commander Michel Aoun at the end of the war did not help in preventing the Syrian military from intervening in the October 1990 battles, which came as part of the implementation of a settlement brokered by the United States to end the war in Lebanon. The buildup of events later led to regime change in what is known as Al-Taif Agreement.
Phase two: The Taif equation and the abandonment of the Christians
During the 1990s, the political balance of powers changed in Lebanon, and the major influence enjoyed earlier by the Maronites diminished in favor of the Cabinet, according to the constitutional amendments of 1990. Late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, due to his strong Arab and international relations, became then a key player in the Lebanese political scene, in which he shared influence with the Syrians over the country.
Thus, with the demise of “political Maronism” and the emergence of “political Sunnism allied with the Syrians,” the former French support for the Christians turned into clear support for the new political powers in Lebanon (Hariri, the Syrians), at the expense of the Christians who had boycotted the 1992 elections, leading to massive frustration among them after they realized that Al-Taif Agreement came at their expense.
The late French President Jacques Chirac said in his memoirs that his relationship with the late Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad was very strong. Coordination was in full swing between the two on matters of Lebanon, and Chirac was the one who chose Emile Lahoud as the president of Lebanon, in coordination with President Al-Assad, "whom he was keen to consult on the issue of appointing the next Lebanese president in December 1998." (Memoirs of Jacques Chirac, 2011).
Chirac was loyal to that alliance even after the death of President Hafez Al-Assad. After the Israeli occupation military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, voices arose inside Lebanon (most notably from Christians) calling on the Syrian army to pull out its forces from the country. The Council of Maronite Bishops issued then statements calling on the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon as part of the relevant international resolutions.
But the calls did not make their way to Paris.
In 2002, French President Jacques Chirac came to Lebanon and delivered a speech in the Lebanese parliament, during which he linked "the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement in the region and resolving the Middle East issue."
Chirac's action left Lebanese Christians in a state of deep frustration, while some even considered that his stance was deliberately directed at them.
However, the French President's attitude toward the Syrians started to shift, even before the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 - which led to a dramatic political shift in the balance of power. Chirac saw the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an opportunity to force change in Lebanon.
During a meeting with then-US President George Bush in 2004, the French leader attempted to persuade his American counterpart to end the Syrian presence in Lebanon. (The meeting details were mentioned by Bush in his memoirs published in 2011, Fateful Decisions.)
Following Hariri's assassination in 2005, enmity prevailed between the Syrians and President Chirac, who bet on the International Tribunal to "topple Bashar Al-Assad" (as mentioned in The Secret of the Presidents book, by Vinsan Nozi, published in 2010).
After that stage, the French policy in Lebanon and Syria during the so-called "Arab Spring" did not deviate from the framework of Washington's policy, and France continued to move within the margin granted to it by the Americans in Lebanon and the region's files.
After that, French policy in Lebanon and Syria during the "Arab Spring" period did not deviate from the framework of American policy, and the French continued to operate within the margin the US allowed them to have in Lebanon and regional files.
Phase three: Macron's ambitions for the return of French influence
In August 2020, immediately after the Beirut port explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron paid two visits to Lebanon and put forward an initiative based on implementing a package of economic and political reforms and forming a new government aimed at pulling Lebanon out of the ongoing crisis since October 17, 2019. But the French President's plan failed.
The Lebanese hold different views and opinions as to why Macron's initiative did not succeed.
Some attributed the failure to the refusal of former US President Donald Trump to ease Washington's maximum pressure campaign on Lebanon, while others accused the Lebanese political class of failing the initiative in order to evade reforms.
As a matter of fact, the failure of Macron's initiative is due to all of the above, in addition to his lack of any means of pressure to impose the French point of view, despite threatening the political echelon with sanctions.
Today, many Christians view the French role in Lebanon negatively, pointing to Macron's absolute support for [Sunni] Prime Minister President Najib Mikati and accusing him of allying with "political Shiism".
Some Maronite leaders are voicing their protest against the "presidential settlement" that France is trying to promote today, which does not align with the overall direction of Christian parties regarding the next president of the country.
The presidential settlement proposed by Paris has led a number of Maronite leaders, some of which always called for a close alliance with the West, and some who previously wished for France to return to Lebanon (in 2020), to accuse France of being “neither a mother nor compassionate” and that it has turned into a “stepmother” or the "unjust father's wife"!
As a result, lessons derived from the historical events in Lebanon indicate that any attempt by any local political party to rely on foreign powers to impose its political point of view is destined to fail.
Although the United States is accused in Lebanon (especially by Christians) of adopting a political approach that puts its own interests above everything else without taking into account the interests of its allies and of not being permanently committed to an ally, reality shows that the French policy is no different than that of the American one.
Therefore, it is in the best interests of Lebanese political parties to rely on themselves, on internal understandings and dialogue, and not to try to leverage their foreign relations against their opponents at home.