Posts Tagged France

Plague and politics, then and now

Bonaparte visits the plague-striken

Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa

“The appearance of Bonaparte in Palestine was only like the passing of a terrible meteor, which, after causing much devastation, again disappears.”

This was the verdict of the great Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz in volume 11 of his monumental Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews, 1870). He was referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s short-lived invasion of Palestine in 1799.

Borrowing Graetz’s metaphor, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow (in his History of Zionism, 1919) thought it a pity that the meteor should have disappeared so quickly. Had Napoleon actually managed to establish an eastern empire including Palestine, wrote Sokolow,

perhaps he would have assigned a share in his government to members of the Jewish nation upon whom the French could rely . . . as having indisputable historical claims on the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

In this scenario of Sokolow’s, Zionism might have had a century’s head start. But, as he himself wryly concludes, “no Jew seriously believed in the success of Bonaparte’s ambitious designs or in the possibility of his victory.”

One possible reason for Napoleon’s failure was the plague. On Passover, Jews mark the exodus of the chosen people, launched at last on their journey toward the Land of Israel, from an Egypt that had been visited by ten plagues. Napoleon was a chosen person who proceeded from Egypt to invade the Land of Israel, only to be thwarted there by a plague. It’s a reminder—as if we needed one at this moment—that politics and plagues are inseparable.

The ancient story, the one about the Jews, is preserved in sacred texts; the modern one, about Napoleon, is preserved in an immortal painting. Prominently displayed in the Louvre in Paris, it depicts an event that took place in Jaffa, now a part of Tel Aviv. Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa was painted by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1804. At the time, it was a sensation; today it remains the subject of enduring fascination.

The date is March 11, 1799, in the midst of the French invasion of Ottoman Palestine. At the center of the painting is the twenty-nine-year-old Napoleon (then still known modestly as General Bonaparte), who the previous year had seized Egypt as part of a plan to checkmate Great Britain, then at war with France and soon to be allied with Ottoman Turkey. A British fleet had cut off Napoleon’s force; to escape the closing noose, he marched across the Sinai and invaded Palestine.

Reaching Jaffa, the French army overcame resistance by the local Ottoman garrison and conquered the town by storm, pillaging left and right and, on Napoleon’s order, massacring several thousand Muslim war prisoners. (This butchery inspired a 1934 play, Bonaparte in Jaffa, by the German-Jewish novelist and playwright Arnold Zweig.) In the aftermath of the mayhem, many dozens of French troops fell ill with the bubonic plague, which had been endemic in their ranks even in Egypt.

This is the point at which the painting, a huge neoclassical masterpiece, comes in. Napoleon, in uniform and accompanied by his aides, is visiting a makeshift ward of desperately ill French soldiers. It is a scene of abject misery and physical suffering. A shaft of light illuminates the general as he fearlessly extends his bare hand to touch a bubo (an inflamed lymph node) of an infected soldier. Behind him, an officer holds a handkerchief to his nose, to block the stench or to protect against contagion. But Napoleon himself is undeterred.

The scene is loosely based on a real event reported by the French army’s chief medical officer:

The general visited the hospital and its annex, spoke to almost all of the soldiers who were conscious enough to hear him, and, for one hour and a half, with the greatest calm, busied himself with the details of administration. While in a very small and crowded ward, he helped to lift, or rather to carry, the hideous corpse of a soldier whose tattered uniform was soiled by the spontaneous bursting of an enormous abscessed bubo.

The effect of the painting, to anyone who’s viewed it in the Louvre, is searing. Not only is the image of Napoleon himself unforgettable, but the rest of the canvas, which measures roughly 23 x 17 feet, painstakingly depicts each horrifying stage of the plague’s afflictions while also offering an ethnographic rendition of the “Orientals” on the scene.

Still, as unforgettable as is the artistic achievement, it’s been a long time since the event depicted by it has spoken to contemporary concerns. Perhaps now, however, it does. In what follows, I’ll restrict myself to five aspects that may have escaped notice in the past but that resonate in this COVID-19 moment. I’ll then conclude with a rumination on a question never asked before: by some twist of historical logic, could the event captured by Gros have been good for the Jews?

Read the rest here at Mosaic Magazine.

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The fantasy of an international Jerusalem

This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine, here.

In the uproar over President Trump’s announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, one constant refrain has been the insistence that, by longstanding international consensus, the city’s status has yet to be decided. In the portentous words of the recent UN General Assembly resolution protesting the American action, “Jerusalem is a final-status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions.”

The most “relevant” of those prior resolutions was the November 1947 resolution proposing partition of Palestine and envisaging, in addition to two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, an entirely separate status for Jerusalem as a city belonging to no state but instead administered by a “special international regime.”

One might have thought that the wholesale Arab rejection of the entire partition plan, in all of its parts, would also have put paid to the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem. Evidently, however, this fantasy is too convenient to lie dormant forever.

That is why it’s useful to know that, almost exactly three decades before the 1947 UN plan, internationalization of Jerusalem was killed—and killed decisively. Who killed it? Thereby hangs a tale, but here is a hint: it was neither the Arabs, nor the Jews.

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Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Jerusalem marked the 100th anniversary of the surrender of the city to British General Edmund Allenby. On December 11, 1917, Allenby crowned his military success in wresting Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and their German ally in a ceremony that resonates to this day.

In a show of seeming humility, Allenby entered the city’s Jaffa Gate on foot, without flags or musical fanfare. Mounting the platform at the entrance to the Citadel (the Tower of David), he then read a straightforward proclamation: the city would be placed under martial law, and the status quo in regard to the holy places would remain in place. After shaking hands with a selection of Jerusalem’s notables, he departed, having spent all of a quarter-hour in the city.

The Illustrated London News carried a photograph, later famous, of Allenby striding on foot into Jerusalem; it depicted the scene as the conqueror’s “simple and reverent entry into Jerusalem.” In fact, the photo op had been carefully stage-managed to create a propaganda point against the German enemy. Kaiser Wilhelm II, upon visiting Jerusalem in 1898, had entered on a white steed, banners flying. So, three weeks before Allenby arrived there, he received this instruction from his superior, General William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff:

In the event of JERUSALEM being occupied, it would be of considerable political importance if you, on officially entering the city, dismount at the city gate and enter on foot. German emperor rode in and the saying went ’round [that] “a better man than he walked.” Advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious.

It was obvious indeed, and well-documented in British propaganda photos and films. This is why, even now, the victors’ procession and Allenby’s declaration take pride of place in the memory of that December 1917 day. Two weeks ago in the Old City of Jerusalem, before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds, both the procession and the proclamation were reenacted.

But another event also took place on that same day in 1917, away from the cameras but just as noteworthy. Indeed, that second event offers the best explanation for why internationalization of Jerusalem never stood a chance in 1947, or at any time since.

When Jerusalem fell, the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 was still in force. That agreement, for the partition of the Ottoman empire, had been reached by the major Allied powers: Britain, France, and Russia. Because of the October Revolution, just weeks before Jerusalem’s capture, Russia had dropped out, but that still left Britain and France (as well as Italy, which jumped late into the alliance).

Since Britain and France both laid claim to Palestine, and wanted to forestall a clash in advance of its conquest, they had decided to share it. By agreement, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and the zone between them were to have an “international administration,” the form of which would be decided through Allied consultation. Sykes-Picot was thus the very first plan for the internationalization of Jerusalem.

But as the war progressed in Palestine, British imperial forces did nearly all of the fighting and dying in battle against the Turks. Lloyd George, the British prime minister, recoiled at the idea of sharing a British conquest with the French. In April 1917, he told the British ambassador to Paris that “the French will have to accept our protectorate; we shall be there by conquest and shall remain.”

The French, however, were just as determined to assert their rights under the Sykes-Picot accord. And so, when the victors’ procession entered Jerusalem on December 11, not only did it include a small French military contingent. It included François Georges-Picot, the French diplomat who had negotiated the agreement.

Picot had just been named by his government as “High Commissioner of the French Republic in the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Syria.” He also had precise instructions from the French prime minister: “You will have to organize the occupied territories so as to ensure France an equal footing to that of England.” In November 1917, Picot proceeded to remind Allenby’s political officer, Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton, of these facts.

“[O]ver a year ago,” Clayton would report Picot as saying, “it was agreed between the British and French governments that, pending the final settlement of the peace terms, any conquered portions of Palestine should be jointly administered.” Moreover, Clayton added, Picot himself operated “in the full conviction that he was to be the French representative in a joint Anglo-French provisional administration which was to govern occupied enemy territory in Palestine until the end of the war—when some sort of international arrangement would be made.”

That is why Picot had set off for Jerusalem on the coattails of Allenby’s victorious army. But Allenby also had his orders. Chief of Staff Robertson had instructed him two weeks earlier that he must “not entertain any ideas of joint administration.” The way around the French was to keep Jerusalem and the rest of the country under a military regime as long as the war lasted. Since Allenby was the commander-in-chief, military rule meant Allenby’s own rule, exercised through any military governors he might appoint.

And that’s just what Allenby announced in his famous proclamation on the steps of the Tower of David. Jerusalem, he told the assembled crowd, had been occupied “by my forces. I therefore here and now proclaim it to be under Martial Law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make it necessary.”

But just what did this mean? And did it exclude the French? After the ceremony adjourned in Jerusalem, Allenby, Picot, and the other chief participants retired to lunch at military headquarters just outside the city, near Ein Karem. Major T.E. Lawrence (that is, “Lawrence of Arabia”) attended as well, having come up from Aqaba at Allenby’s bidding. In his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence described the scene:

On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative permitted by Allenby to march beside Clayton in the entry, who said in his fluting voice: “And tomorrow, my dear general, I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.”

It was the bravest word on record; a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise, and foie-gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, “In the military zone the only authority is that of the commander-in-chief—myself.” “But Sir Grey, Sir Edward Grey . . . ,” stammered M. Picot. [Grey, by that time Lord Grey, had been British foreign secretary in 1916, when the Sykes-Picot agreement was concluded.] He was cut short. “Sir Edward Grey referred to the civil government which will be established when I judge that the military situation permits.”

It is widely acknowledged that Lawrence’s reliability as a witness to events out in the desert leaves much to be desired. But this episode occurred on Allenby’s side of the Jordan, and in the presence of other British officers. His account, then, however colorfully phrased, may be regarded as trustworthy.

Indeed, Lawrence may even have softened the edges. Philip Chetwode, commander of a corps in Palestine, also attended the lunch; in a 1939 letter to another officer who had been there, and who was writing a biography of Allenby, Chetwode wrote:

I wish to goodness you could put in what the Frenchman said to Allenby and what Allenby said to him, when the Frenchman said he was going to take over the civil administration of Jerusalem at once. However, that, of course, can never appear in a book.

Since a version had already appeared in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the bit of Allenby’s put-down that could “never appear in a book” might well have been gruffer still. (Louis Massignon, a French officer attached to Picot, wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered.”)

This didn’t exhaust Picot’s efforts, but the die had been cast. Ten days later, Picot complained that there had been no progress toward “Anglo-French civil administration,” and told a British interlocutor that “he would never have agreed to come out [to Palestine] if he had known.” Although Picot’s French Commission tried to (re)assert a “religious protectorate” over Catholic holy places (mostly in opposition to the Italians), there would be no “international administration” in Jerusalem, only exclusive British control.

Moreover, while Allenby had invoked military necessity, the British soon developed a full-blown thesis as to why they, and only they, were qualified to rule Jerusalem. The British, they averred in brief, were purely neutral. As Lloyd George put it, “being of no particular faith [we are] the only power fit to rule Mohammedans, Jews, Roman Catholics, and all religions.”

• •

Thus did the first agreement to internationalize Jerusalem come to naught.

Why is this significant today? Had Allenby wavered, and had some sort of joint administration come into being after World War I, it might have created institutions of international governance. These might have accumulated 30 years of experience by 1947, when the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine and the internationalization of Jerusalem. Instead, during those decades, the British preferred to rule Jerusalem exactly as the Ottomans had done before them—namely, by dictate.

In 1947, internationalization thus had no precedent, no bureaucratic foundation, and no mechanism for implementation. As in 1916, it wasn’t a true option, but a placeholder for indecision.

In the century since Allenby entered Jerusalem, the city hasn’t known a single day of international administration. Indeed, it hasn’t had such a day in 3,000 years. The idea that it constitutes a kind of default solution for the future of Jerusalem is but one more example of a petrified piety. Internationalization became irrelevant over lunch a century ago, and it has remained so ever since.

A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby's proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right.

Image: A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right. Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

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Sykes-Picot and the Zionists

This essay appeared at the website of The American Interest on May 19. It is based on a presentation made to the conference on “100 Years Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 18, 2016.

Many people presume that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, advanced the Zionist project in Palestine. The Zionist movement celebrated Sir Mark Sykes as one of its own, so many have assumed that he must have designed the agreement to serve the Zionist interest. In the words of a Palestinian professor of history at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, “Sykes-Picot was a carefully-designed plan and prelude to the Balfour Declaration. The creation of Israel on Palestinian land would not have been possible without the Sykes-Picot agreement.” A former Israeli Ambassador has written that the Sykes-Picot agreement “politically and materially contribut[ed] to the realization of the Zionist vision.” He has even suggested that its anniversary belongs on the same Zionist calendar with the anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition resolution of 1947, as “milestones on the path to Jewish statehood.”

This is exactly wrong. In his memoirs, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who midwifed the Balfour Declaration, wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “fatal to us…. The Sykes-Picot arrangement was not a full treaty; but it was sufficiently official to create the greatest single obstacle to our progress.” Sykes-Picot wasn’t a prelude to the Balfour Declaration, but an obstacle that had to be cleared to reach the Balfour Declaration. To understand that, all one has to do is look carefully at the map.

But before that, a word on the purpose of Sykes-Picot. It was the Arab activist George Antonius who famously wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “the product of greed at its worst.” But it was a product of fear as much as of greed, if not more so. The fear was that in the aftermath of war, Britain and France, old rivals, would clash disastrously over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot had the same logic as Yalta thirty years later: It proposed an orderly partition to keep wartime allies from plunging into a new conflict after victory. And a good case can be made that when it came to preventing clashes between two rivals, Sykes-Picot was much more effective than Yalta. Preserving the balance of power was its primary objective, and in that respect, Sykes-Picot achieved its purpose.

Palestine in Sykes-Picot map

This fear of clashing allies is most manifest on the Sykes-Picot map in its treatment of Palestine. Sykes and Picot divided the Arab provinces of the empire by an east-west “line in the sand” across the Syrian desert. North of that line, there would be a “blue” zone of exclusive French control (including Beirut and Tripoli), and an Arab state (or states) under French protection (including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Mosul). South of it, there would be a “red” zone of direct British control (including Basra and Baghdad), and an Arab state (or states) under British protection (mostly desert).

The first thing one notices is that Palestine doesn’t fit neatly within the dualistic rubric of the French and British zones. This corner of the map is, in fact, divided five ways.

  • A wedge in the north of the country, including the tributaries of the Jordan above the Sea of Galilee and part of the northern shore of the lake, are solid blue, that is, under direct French control.
  • The eastern shore of the lake and the Golan are marked off as part of the Arab state under French protection.
  • The bulk of the country, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Gaza, is colored brown. According to the agreement, “In the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other Allies [the reference is to Italy], and the representatives of the Shereef of Mecca.” (In an earlier joint memo in January 1916, Sykes and Picot wrote that “the chief of the Arabian confederation should have an equal voice in the administration of Palestine.”) The notion was that this would be an Anglo-French condominium, with a yet-undetermined measure of input from other allies.
  • The ports of Haifa and Acre, and the plain between them, are red, under direct British administration. Britain wanted this as an end point for a railroad from Baghdad to the Mediterranean.
  • Last but not least, the south of the country, including Hebron and Beer Sheba, as well as Transjordan, are to be part of the independent Arab state or confederation of states under British protection.

The Sykes-Picot map thus constitutes the first partition plan for Palestine, into no fewer than five zones. Why so many pieces? Again, balance of power. Sykes had hoped to create a British-controlled land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, but other Allied claims stood in the way. So the agreement regarding Palestine made concessions to the interests of almost every stakeholder: Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the Sharif of Mecca.

Almost everyone: missing from the list were the Zionists. Twenty years later, George Antonius would call Sykes-Picot a “shocking document.” It certainly shocked the Zionists in London in April 1917. That is when the British Zionist activist Harry Sacher got wind of it from a friendly journalist who picked up news of it from France. Sacher informed Chaim Weizmann, who was distressed to find that the agreement displayed not a single trace of consideration for Zionist aims. At this very time, Zionist leaders had been deep in discussion about Palestine with sympathetic British officials, including Sykes. Sachar wrote to Weizmann in disgust: “We have been lied to and deceived all along.”

Weizmann was stunned by two aspects of the agreement. First, the Sykes-Picot partition thoroughly divided the Yishuv. Many of the most veteran Zionist settlements—Metullah, Rosh Pina, Yesod Hama’alah, Mishmar Hayarden—would be in the exclusively French zone, as would Safed. The internationalized brown zone would include Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tiberias, as well as newer settlements such as Tel Aviv, Petah Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, and Zichron Yaakov. Weizmann called this division a “Solomon’s judgment of the worst character, the child is cut in two and both halves mutilated.” Were Sykes-Picot implemented, he protested, “the Jewish colonizing effort of some thirty years [would be] annihilated.”

Second, the agreement gave France a dominant role as far as the Jews were concerned. France would have full control of the Galilee settlements, and would be on equal par with Britain in Judaea and the coastal plain. Weizmann regarded France as wholly unsympathetic to Zionism; far from facilitating Zionist colonization, France would block it.

So what was he to do? Weizmann’s immediate move was to show up at the Foreign Office and protest to Lord Robert Cecil, acting Foreign Secretary. Weizmann’s report of that meeting is the most thorough Zionist critique of Sykes-Picot. Weizmann denounced the proposed division between the Galilee and Judaea in emphatic terms. “We would always consider [this] as an unjust partition,” and the Galilee “would certainly constitute a Jewish irredenta…. There is little doubt that the suggested division of Palestine would raise an outcry which will ring through from one end of the world to the other.” As for international or dual control, in the brown area, “it would be fraught with gravest dangers….. Any enterprise in the country would have to be sanctioned by both governments and would lead constantly to jealousies.” According to Cecil, Weizmann even warned that “the Zionists throughout the world would regard a French administration in Palestine as… ‘a third destruction of the Temple.'”

From April 1917, Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.

And Weizmann succeeded: in regard to Palestine, he managed to overturn Sykes-Picot entirely. Or was it really his success? In fact, he had plenty of powerful partners. By the time Weizmann learned of Sykes-Picot, many British officials wanted to shred it. They thought Sykes had given away far too much to the French. In particular, they didn’t trust the French on the flank of the Suez canal, which was the imperial lifeline to India. And if the British and the ANZACs were going to do all the fighting and dying to liberate Palestine, why should Britain share it with anyone? As Lloyd George later wrote of the armies under Allenby: “The redemption of Palestine from the withering aggression of the Turk became like a pillar of flame to lead them on. The Sykes-Picot Agreement perished in its fire. It was not worth fighting for Canaan in order to condemn it to the fate of Agag and hew it in pieces before the Lord. Palestine, if recaptured, must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.”

Sykes himself backtracked from the agreement, tried to get Picot to modify it, and helped formulate the Balfour Declaration. In 1919, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov wrote: “From the standpoint of Zionist interests in Palestine, [Sykes-Picot] justly met with severe criticism; but it was Sykes himself who criticized it most sharply and who with the change of circumstances dissociated himself from it entirely.”

The Balfour Declaration was the crucial step in the unraveling the Palestine corner of the Sykes-Picot map. British military administration came next. The last nail in the coffin came in December 1918, when Lloyd George met Clemenceau in London. “Tell me what you want,” said Clemenceau. “I want Mosul,” said Lloyd George. “You shall have it. Anything else?” “Yes, I want Jerusalem too.” “You shall have it.” Exit France. Sykes-Picot formally and finally came undone when Britain received the exclusive mandate for all of Palestine. It is this exclusive British protectorate that eventually made Israel possible. Israel probably would never have been born, if the Sykes-Picot map had been implemented.

So Sykes-Picot became a dead letter as regards Palestine no later than 1918, if not earlier. Has it left any legacy at all? The Sykes-Picot map proclaimed that no one actor could unilaterally determine the fate of the country. There were too many conflicting interests. During the mandate years, Britain had enough power to call the shots alone. But only twenty years after Sykes-Picot, partition again became the solution to solving clashing interests in Palestine. So it has been from the Peel plan of 1937, to the UN partition plan of 1947, and ever since. The idea of agreed partition is the lasting legacy of Sykes-Picot. Even Israel’s fifty-year control of the entire country from the Mediterranean sea to the Jordan river since 1967 hasn’t undone it. Other aspects of Sykes-Picot disappeared completely. The idea of an agreed partition of Palestine, proposed in 1916 but never realized, is likely to remain with us for some time to come.

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France and Middle Eastern Terrorism

Martin Kramer, “France and Middle Eastern Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 1990), pp. 574-80. The article is a review essay on five books in French. Only one, Marie Seurat’s Les corbeaux d’Alep, is still in print.

In 1978, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in the Parisian suburb of Neauphle-le-Château following his expulsion from Iraq. The Shah of Shahs was threatened by a rising tide of dissent, and prevailed upon Iraq to eject the still obscure and aged cleric from his place of exile in the shrine city of Najaf. The Shah wished to distance Khomeini from Iran’s borders, and France seemed sufficiently removed from the eye of the storm.

But Parisian exile actually made Khomeini’s appeal for revolution far more effective and audible. He and his disciples now had easy access to the international media and could direct-dial their supporters in Iran, carefully setting the cadence of escalation. Ultimately the Shah left for his own exile and Khomeini returned to Tehran on a triumphant direct flight from Paris. He descended to the tarmac on the supporting arm of an Air France pilot.

French policy-makers had every cause to believe that their political hospitality had sowed the seeds of a privileged relationship with Iran. But the plant yielded bitter fruit. In the course of the subsequent decade, France and the Islamic Republic of Iran collided in spectacular and deadly ways. French aircraft and arms, sold in massive quantities to Iraq, took a daily toll in Iranian lives following the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1980. Iranian bombs, planted by Shi’ite operatives, claimed French lives in the rubble-strewn alleyways of Beirut and on the best shopping streets of Paris. And both sides took prisoners. Iran’s agents in France were arrested, imprisoned, and expelled. Frenchmen in Lebanon—journalists, diplomats, bystanders—were abducted and held hostage by Iran’s Shi’ite clients. By 1986, the hostage-holders in Lebanon had driven the French government into a corner, while bomb makers sent by Iran succeeded in placing the populace of Paris under virtual siege.

Five recent books bear witness to different aspects of the undeclared but dirty little war which raged between France and Iran in the 1980s. Two describe the frustration and growing desperation of the French official classes as they suffered blow after blow in a war they had failed to anticipate. Two other books are personal testimonies by two victimized bystanders, one a hostage, the other the wife of a hostage. The last, on the Lebanese Hizbullah, is an attempt to define an adversary whose power to elude definition was its greatest asset. While all of these books were written for a general audience (four of them by journalists), they are also bound to serve as grist for the busy mills of scholarship.

Between Baghdad and Tehran

Pierre Péan is an investigative journalist well known for his ability to ferret out information on the inner workings of the Élysée, government ministries, and intelligence agencies. Most of his book, La menace, is a painstaking reconstruction of French policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran from the outbreak of the Gulf War until the so-called ‘war of the embassies’ in 1987.

Péan maps the principal corridors of policy, which he follows meticulously to a single conclusion: a powerful pro-Iraqi lobby compromised France’s neutrality in the Gulf conflict. This lobby assured that the government approved massive arms sales and high technology transfers to Iraq (including nuclear reactor technology) largely on credit extended by France. An official embargo on sales to Iran accentuated the imbalance. Thus France unwittingly became a co-belligerent of Iraq in the Gulf War—unwittingly, because the architects of French policy assumed that such sales did not constitute acts of aggression. For Iran, however, the distinction between the sale and use of arms appeared arbitrary, despite its roots in the common law of Western nations. And Péan himself seems to postulate a moral equivalence between Iran’s spawning of deadly terror and France’s dealing in deadly arms. It is an argument not without philosophical merit.

Péan thus claims to have uncovered what might be called an ‘Iraqgate.’ Private interests subverted France’s declared policy of neutrality in the Gulf War, at the very moment when White House zealots subverted American neutrality by trading arms for hostages. (Péan is aware of the parallels, and a chapter is devoted to the arms-for-hostages escapades of the Americans.) Iran reacted by gradually escalating a campaign of intimidation, first in Lebanon, then in France itself. Péan does not excuse Iranian hostage-taking and terror bombing, which he clearly labels political extortion. But French policy emerges from his narrative with scarcely more credit. The seemingly principled slogan that France would not become ‘hostage to the hostages’ simply masked callous calculations made in favor of a blatantly pro-Iraqi policy.

In the end, of course, France did become ‘hostage to the hostages’ who were taken at Iran’s behest in Lebanon. Each night, the network news program of Antenne 2 reminded viewers of the French hostages’ plight. Committees were organized on behalf of the journalists who had been seized, and they used their influence to keep the issue on front pages and television screens. The French government now had to take into account more than the demands of the pro-Iraqi lobbyists; it began a series of desultory negotiations with a bewildering array of intermediaries, both Iranian and Lebanese. Péan uses his unmatched sources to trace French diplomacy through the murkiest back channels to Iran’s divided leadership.

During this trip through the looking glass, the French encountered a bizarre array of mediation impresarios as wondrous as the Americans’ famous ‘Gorba’ and as egotistical as Anglican superdealer Terry Waite. The most extraordinary of them all was Razah Raad, a Lebanese Shi’ite physician and naturalized Frenchman, formerly of Bidnayil in the Bekaa Valley, latterly of Argentan in Normandy, where he owned and inhabited a seventeenth-century château built by a duke. As the French hostages came to dominate the television news, it occurred to Dr. Raad that he might render his adopted country a service by mobilizing the extensive Raad clan to mediate among France, Iran, and the Shi’ite hostage-holders in Lebanon. Raad did have ‘fabulous contacts’ in Shi’ite Lebanon, and disappeared for days into Beirut’s southern suburbs, where he parleyed with representatives of the hostage-holders. Then he would reappear in West Beirut or Damascus, to deliver the latest terms. The mysterious missions of Raad clarified the demands of the hostage-holders, but produced no real progress. Neither did various French missions to Tehran and the mediation of several dubious Syrians—sometimes documented by Péan with leaked official documents.

When the holding of hostages failed to break French resolve, Iran finally moved to break the deadlock by inspiring an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Paris itself. There can be no doubt that these bombings, which killed 11 persons and wounded 275, finally broke the resolve of the French. It was one thing to suffer the embarrassment of impotence in the face of Shi’ite hostage-holders in Beirut, quite another to stand helpless before terror in Paris itself. The French government did not rush to surrender, as the ‘war of the embassies’ demonstrated. (On that occasion, the French government launched a virtual siege of Iran’s embassy in Paris, in order to force the surrender of an embassy employee suspected of involvement in the bombings. The effort failed when Iran retaliated in kind against the French embassy in Tehran.) But in the final analysis, France lost the battle of wills, because it remained vulnerable to terror in its very capital. Faced with terror at home, Jacques Chirac opted for concessions to Iran. Iran, in turn, ordered an end to the bombing campaign and the release of French hostages in Lebanon.

Péan published his book shortly before this understanding was reached. Former Beirut correspondent Yves Loiseau has followed the story to its conclusion in Le grand troc, an extended chronology of the French hostage affair.2 In a series of dated entries from 1985 to 1988, Loiseau follows the complex thread of statements, rumors, mediations, and negotiations which culminated in the ‘deal.’ While there are no startling revelations here, the presentation of the record could not be more systematic—and sobering.

With bombs going off on the Champs-Élysées and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, French officials concluded that victorious war could not be waged against terrorism, at least not by France. Moral posturing might suit the Americans, but the preservation of the very rhythm of life in France depended upon some compromise with the sponsors of terror. And did not France have a moral duty to negotiate for its citizens, held against their will simply because they were Frenchmen? In one of the more striking examples of Franco-American cultural divergence, the French public supported precisely the kind of dealing for hostages which absolutely scandalized the American public. Even the tough-minded Loiseau, in a last section provocatively entitled ‘Lebanongate,’ indulges in the second thought that perhaps the freeing of the French hostages did justify ‘the means.’

Yet only now is it becoming clear just how extraordinary those means were, involving direct negotiations with hostage-holders and the release of terrorists jailed in France for outrages. Mist still obscures the secret missions to Beirut of the famous ‘Stephani’—the false name of Jean-Charles Marchiani, former French intelligence operative and confidant of fellow Corsican Charles Pasqua, Chirac’s interior minister. It was Marchiani who publicly delivered the French hostages from captivity. Was he a conduit for ransom to the hostage-holders? And just how far did the concessions to Iran go? In 1990, President François Mitterrand met a decade-old Iranian demand for the pardon of four men convicted for their botched assassination attempt against Iranian opposition leader Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris. A bystander and a policeman were killed in that attempt; another policeman was paralyzed for life. Will that release ultimately serve as a precedent for Fouad Ali Saleh, the Tunisian recruit to Iran’s cause, whom a French court sentenced to life in 1990 for masterminding the fatal bombings in Paris? There are still loose ends to the ‘deal’—and room for a sequel to these two books.

The Beirut Hostages

For one French hostage, the ‘deal’ came too late. Michel Seurat, a young sociologist of Islam, had done original work on Sunni fundamentalism in Tripoli, and had begun researching Shi’ite fundamentalism in Beirut. In May 1985, he flew back to Beirut from Morocco, where he had attended an academic conference on ‘Terrorism, Violence, and the City.’ En route from airport to city, Seurat (and French journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann) were dragged from their taxi and taken hostage by Islamic Jihad.

In Tripoli, Seurat had moved with ease among Sunni fundamentalists, then locked in a struggle with Syria. His work on their movement combined sociological insight with an understanding gained through direct experience.3 But the Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut were not the quarter of Bâb Tebbâné in Tripoli. Both were societies under siege, but Seurat’s Shi’ite captors played on a global stage, in a struggle that did not admit the neutrality of a sociologist of Islam. The ‘brethren’ of Seurat’s abductors had been condemned in Kuwait for a series of bombings, including an attack on the French embassy there. Seurat was seized in order to force France to press for release of their ‘brethren.’

Les corbeaux d’Alep is a brief but fascinating memoir written by Seurat’s Syrian wife, Marie.4 It is really two books. One is an account of her fruitless efforts on behalf of her husband—efforts which took her to the chambers of Hizbullah’s spiritual mentor, to the bases of Hizbullah in the Bekaa Valley, and through the labyrinth of French officialdom. Marie Seurat’s insights cut to the bone: the dissembling Shi’ite clerics and militiamen, the ponderous French diplomats, the drama-mongers of the media, are all portrayed with the blackest cynicism. This is a faithful guide to the terrors of the purgatory inhabited by all families of hostages.

Yet this is also a book about personal transformation. Marie Seurat began her ordeal as a self-obsessed woman from a prosperous Syrian Christian family—a lady most at home in the world of Alfa Romeos, doting servants, and male suitors. Even her marriage to a leftist French sociologist with Palestinian sympathies was a kind of self-indulgence, not a true rebellion. But with her husband’s abduction, she was suddenly thrust into a violent labyrinth, without the compass of political savvy and without the rosary of religious faith carried by the wives of so many hostages. The absence of faith cost her dearly. When she reached the depths of her own despair, she turned to clairvoyants and astrologers, who promised to divine the fate of her husband. Ultimately she became so emotionally strung out that she required some hospitalization. Yet for most of her ordeal, she not only kept her wits about her, but succeeded in penetrating the ritual posturing which surrounds every hostage affair.

The most remarkable passage in this remarkable book concerns the author’s visit to her husband during his captivity. The visit was a privilege enjoyed by no other hostage of Islamic Jihad, and Michel Seurat, as a sympathetic student of Islam, did enjoy a privileged standing among the hostages. He received books of his choice and letters. During the visit, he told his wife that he wished to stay in Beirut even after his eventual release. ‘I still have many things to do here. My captors and the leader of the group have agreed to allow me to move about the southern suburbs. I could finish my study of the Shi’ite fundamentalists. . . . I must finish what I’ve started.’

Seurat, alas, overestimated the value of his sympathetic scholarship to his captors. He could not escape categorization as a hostage, valued solely as a bargaining chip in a game played against the government of France. In his wife’s view, media attention only raised the asking price for her husband’s release, a view that put her at odds with the spouses of other hostages. (Nor did it help that in years past, Seurat had published a number of anti-Syrian articles under a pseudonym.) Islamic Jihad thus ignored an exceptional appeal on Seurat’s behalf made by leading Lebanese Muslim figures, including the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah.

It was here that bad luck intervened. Seurat contracted viral hepatitis before Iran had asserted its prior claim to Islamic Jihad’s French hostages. The illness reduced him to crawling on all fours, and the unavailability of proper treatment finally finished him. He reportedly lies buried in the cemetery of Rawdat al-Shahidayn, resting place of the martyrs of Hizbullah. For Marie Seurat, Islamic Jihad’s refusal to release her husband, even as death hovered, was the final irony. Michel Seurat had showed the ‘Partisans of God’ the sympathy of true fascination, and was rewarded with abduction and death. ‘The Arabist has been assassinated by the Arabs. The specialist who consults the Qur’an has been put to death by the fundamentalists. The Orientalist has been killed by his Orient. Even his death has betrayed him.’ The courage of this book lies in Marie Seurat’s admission that her husband was blinded by his own ‘expertise’—that his sympathies conspired with his abductors to kill him.

The gods, in their unfathomable logic, looked down with greater favor upon Roger Auque. This journalist was abducted in January 1987 by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, a group of uncertain composition which enjoyed Iranian sanction. Auque spent over ten months in captivity before he was released as part of the ‘deal.’

Published testimonies of former hostages are now quite numerous. The genre is not without literary potential, but no former hostage has effectively worked the experience into narrative. Yet in every such account, there are passages which do convey the overwhelming sense of loss that afflicts every hostage. There are quite a few such passages in Auque’s memoir, Un otage à Beyrouth.5 On one memorable page, he recreates his own reaction when the wife of a guard sprays perfume on his hand. ‘Anaïs, Cacherel,’ she confides to the blindfolded Auque. The rekindling of this sensation—a scent of femininity and freedom, introduced into the windowless, narrow space of a Beirut hostage—sets Auque’s mind racing in every direction. Moments of fear, anger, despair, anticipation—Auque leaves us with a vivid impression of the intensity of a hostage’s emotions. But for any hostage held over months or years, such moments are flashes in a dark expanse of boredom and isolation. No former hostage has yet found a way to convey the tyranny of that boredom without boring readers as well.

But Auque’s account, like those of other hostages, does contain a rare kind of evidence. All foreign hostages were kept in the dark about the identity of their captors and their own place in the game. Foreign hostages spent most of their time behind blindfolds, sometimes alone, sometimes with other hostages. Yet the hostages had to be guarded, spinning threads of human contact between guard and hostage. Auque reports several conversations with his guards, and this table talk reveals much about the small cogs in the Revolutionary Justice Organization. Auque soon became convinced that his keepers were not fundamentalists at all. Most were preoccupied with money, women, and films. (According to testimony of other hostages, this was not the case with Islamic Jihad’s gaolers, who had found true religion. Seurat reportedly described them as ‘neither human nor inhuman, but non-human.’) Auque’s reportage is telling evidence that Iran did not rely wholly upon religious zealots to supply it with French hostages. Iran discreetly created a demand for foreigners of certain nationalities; enterprising Lebanese answered that demand.

But captivity is hardly the ideal vantage-point from which to view Iran’s Lebanese involvement as a whole. One journalist who played the game carefully, got his information, and got out, has written the best single account of Hizbullah in French. Gilles Delafon arrived in Beirut in 1985, as a young journalist working for Europe 1 and the weekly magazine Le Point. The big story, of course, was the French hostages, and Delafon pursued it by making connections in the Shi’ite community. Delafon is a talented journalist, even if his style tends to the dramatic, and he has drawn a lively portrait of Hizbullah, entitled Beyrouth: Les soldats de l’Islam.6 While the book tells the usual story of hostage-taking and hijacking, it also goes a step further in seeking to uncover the social foundations of Hizbullah.

In this respect, the chapter entitled ‘Les dollars de l’Iran’ is the most valuable in the book. Elaborate rumors always circulated about Iranian financing of Hizbullah, especially regarding the sum total of the assistance. The oft-repeated figures were simple guesses. It is unlikely that even the Iranians knew how much they were spending in Lebanon, since the disbursements were made by different and often competing agencies. Delafon is not concerned with putting an arbitrary price-tag on the value of Iranian aid, but instead seeks to illustrate the many ways in which this money reached and affected the Shi’ite community of Lebanon. Readers will wonder at the details in this chapter, for Delafon credits no sources. There is no need for bafflement. Delafon has gone through Hizbullah’s own weekly newspaper, Al-Ahd, which is brimming with information about Iranian aid to university students and the activities of the Reconstruction Jihad and the Martyrs’ Foundation.

The other chapters are rather less well grounded, if only because so many of Hizbullah’s doings remain shrouded in secrecy and disinformation. Lots of livelihoods have been made over the years by providing ‘inside information’ on the identities of clandestine operatives and the whereabouts of hostages. Yet Delafon shows discretion in sifting through what he hears, and he has avoided the usual traps laid by disinformants. His principal advantage seems to be that while other journalists often have relied on (Christian) East Beirut sources for information on Hizbullah, Delafon had lots of leads in the Shi’ite Amal movement. Many of these leads had family members and acquaintances in Hizbullah, and so could provide Delafon with useful details and quotable opinions. These voices do not come from within Hizbullah, but they very much evoke the voices of Amal members who have crossed the line time and again into Hizbullah.

Still, much of this book relies on published sources, and it is unfortunate that Delafon does not cite them. No doubt this reflects the widespread aversion of French journalists to footnotes. (Péan has no use for them either.) But a work of high journalism should show its respect for serious readers—and acknowledge the author’s own debts—by making explicit reference to sources. An example of the proper journalistic mode of citation was provided by Robin Wright in Sacred Rage—an example certainly known to Delafon, who relies extensively upon Wright at several points in his book. Since Delafon avers that it is impossible to thank his live informants by name, it is all the more regrettable that he did not reference his many published sources.

As it is, one never quite knows whether Delafon is reporting something he has seen, heard, or read. In one typical instance, he tells the story of the ceremony for laying the cornerstone of a new mosque in the obscure village of Zabbud, northeast of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley (pp. 123-24). The vivid details given by Delafon leave the strong impression that he personally witnessed this (minor) event deep within Hizbullah’s space, which would have been remarkable indeed. In fact his account is drawn completely from issue 173 of Hizbullah’s weekly newspaper, which incorporates precisely the same details. (Another account also appeared in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar on 12 October 1987). There is a minor deception at work here—one that detracts from the documentary value of Delafon’s own personal testimony. For it is never clear where that testimony ends and reliance on others begins.

When these books were written, Iran still loomed in Western imaginations as an outlaw state, defiant of all international norms and supportive of terrorism. Since then, Khomeini has died, the Iran-Iraq war has ended in a cease-fire, and France’s relationship with Iran has been ‘normalized.’ What, then, is the enduring significance of the outcome of Iran’s unconventional war against France?

Precedents were set which may embolden other Middle Eastern states or movements to collect French hostages or bomb Paris shops. In the Gulf conflict of the 1980s, the occasional resort to terrorism became routinized; so, too, did the occasional capitulation to terrorism. The 1990s now have ushered in other conflicts. France, having sowed the wind, may yet reap the whirlwind.


1. Pierre Péan, La menace (Paris: Fayard, 1987).
2. Yves Loiseau, Le grand troc: Le labyrinthe des otages français au Liban (Paris: Hachette, 1988).
3. His articles were collected and republished posthumously. See Michel Seurat, L’État de barbarie (Paris: Seuil, 1989).
4. Marie Seurat, Les corbeaux d’Alep (Paris: Gallimard/Lieu Commun, 1988). The book is now available in English as Birds of Ill Omen, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (London: Quartet, 1990).
5. Roger Auque (in collaboration with Patrick Forestier), Un otage à Beyrouth (Paris: Filipacchi, 1988).
6. Gilles Delafon, Beyrouth: Les soldats de l’Islam (Paris: Stock, 1989).

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