French Ambassador Hervé Magro: Navigating Lebanon’s Peace Challenge

Ah, the Pines residence. Already, the place is an art, a culture, a history, a heritage, a symbol. This legendary building, a veritable palace of a thousand and one nights, was built in 1915. It has been the residence of the French ambassadors to Lebanon since 1943. It is there, in the middle of these 5,000 m2, that Hervé Magro has packed his bags. Tall, graying, he is dressed in gray. He quickly got his bearings, in this large blue-white-red house, ultra-secure, with naturally golden cut stones. Like him, this residence is steeped in history, diplomatic and political times which marked Lebanon and Franco-Lebanese friendship. Would Greater Lebanon without France have existed? Would it have given birth to the independent Lebanon of November 22, 1943? Certainly not.

Independence ? Yes, such was the mandate given to the French by the League of Nations, the late SDN (which disappeared in 1946 in favor of the United Nations, created a year earlier). A tricolor empire was needed to allow the Lebanese to free themselves from the red and white Ottoman yoke. The cedar of Lebanon had to be displayed as its white flag. The Ottoman Empire was defeated by the First World War and its internal revolution. Empire which has not left humanity with good memories, with its share of conquests, genocides, occupations, massacres, pogroms and barbaric tragedies. A page turns. The Lebanese are happy to learn that this empire is replaced by another: that of Deschanel’s France, whose courtesy, elegance and language fascinate. A cultural, economic and political beacon that breathes the cedar of democracy!

The French Mandate and Independence

On April 25, 1920, exactly, the League of Nations thus gave France a mandate over all of Syria, including Lebanon. Then began 23 years of good agreements, good developments and multiple investments of all kinds. France is getting involved. With brotherhood, she gets closer to communities, including the community of Maronite Christians. Under the influence of the latter, it created Greater Lebanon, including Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa plain, a veritable land of plenty, and the entire coastline, which had escaped them until now. On September 1 of the same year, on the large steps of the residence’s porch, which opens on either side onto a majestic adjoining gallery, where the eye and gaze never cease to contemplate the arabesque beauty of its large marble columns, with finely cut lace capitals.

This September 1, 1920, therefore, General Henri Gouraud, the French High Commissioner to the Levant, signed in the presence of local authorities, the mandate which commits France and which creates Greater Lebanon. The old warrior poses at the top of the steps, with the Grand Mufti of Beirut, Cheik Moustafa Naja, and the Maronite Patriarch Elias Pierre Hoayek. The moment is historic. The photo will go around the world.

A legacy, a roadmap

“I am a career diplomat,” explains the ambassador. After studying history, I took the Orient competition with a specialization in the North Africa and Middle East zone. I learned Turkish. Then, my positions, whether in Paris or abroad, were related to the Middle East. In Washington, I was advisor to the ambassador in charge of the Middle East. I was stationed in Jerusalem, too. I have been posted to Türkiye three times. » Calm and clear, this son of Algerian pied noir has inherited this passion for the entire Mediterranean region. He then specialized in the Middle East.

In his immense 100 m2 office-living room, with furniture evoking the Levant and French elegance, that of Art Deco, he talks, seated in his armchair, about his roadmap. “It is the President of the Republic who sets it. We are named by him. There is a line that is stated in Paris, by him. Lebanon is one of those countries with which we have a special bond and ties. This is the particularity of Lebanon: there still exists here this very strong link with history. Here, at the French residence, in 1920 we effectively declared Greater Lebanon. This almost unbreakable bond continues to unite us. And, France has an interest in this country in a context where other countries are not or no longer concerned about it. »

History links the two countries forever: “Since François I, France has been close to Lebanon and the entire Middle East. It was at that moment that the religious question arose. Because France protected pilgrims and local religious communities. »

This Christian, who represents France, a secular state, displays neither his faith nor his religion. But he knows the confessional subject specific to Lebanon well.

From diplomacy to literature

We talk about conflicts, secularism, religion and values. With the return of conflicts, since the 44-day war, in 2020, that of Azerbaijan against the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh where lived 155,000 Armenians, who had declared their independence at the time of the fall of the former -USSR at the end of the 80s. Then, as if the story was told in the form of a morbid litany, there was the war in Ukraine, in 2022. Then, the ethnic cleansing of 2023 of the entire Upper -Karabakh which found itself at war again – the 120,000 Armenians remaining in the enclave had to flee their home and ancestral land overnight without the United States and France intervening, as they do, currently, for Israel in Gaza. With the return of conflicts, French diplomacy has seen its role increase and be called into question. Would she be back? The lawyer-writer Nicolas Baverez recently spoke of “French diplomacy in a state of brain death. »

For Hervé Magro, it’s quite the opposite. Diplomacy is alive and well. He notes that “these conflicts highlight the loss of a model and the loss of values. Both nationalism and religion are places where values persist. The other models have failed, it must be remembered. Communism, we have seen what it has become. However, we must never forget that it was a progressive project, of human progress. The reality was terrible. Then there was full-throated capitalism. We also built the European Union, which was a very large project, which exceeded that of the large common market. » For him, even if it is disrupted, French diplomacy would make a comeback, in the light of the geopolitics of conflicts.

He nourishes his diplomatic action with his philosophical thoughts, because he is a privileged observer and he wants to get off the beaten track. He loves literature. He cites Amin Maalouf, elected permanent secretary of the French Academy on September 28. “In his latest book (Editor’s note: Le Labyrinthe des égarés, L’Ouest et ses adversaires, published by Grasset this year), he talks about competition with China, but the latter does not offer a different model. » Would France remain this unsinkable beacon which illuminates nations fallen into the night of conflicts and tragedies?

Serving Lebanon and the Francophonie

Hervé Magro will repeat it several times during our meeting, as if this sentence alone sums up his mission: “Our objective is to help Lebanon. » At a time when Lebanon is experiencing an institutional crisis, since the vacancy of presidential power (the last president of the Republic of Lebanon was Michel Aoun, whose mandate ended on Sunday October 31, 2022, there is more than one an) and since the resignation of the government, the back and forths of Jean-Yves Le Drian, Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy, are in this straight line: “Trying to help Lebanon get out of this institutional impasse. » Mission possible?

France helps Lebanon on an institutional level, but also on an economic and social level. “Our priorities are to help the Lebanese in terms of education, teaching and health. You should know that the education system here is one of the most efficient in the region, even in the world. Everywhere, here, in France, in Africa, in the United States, in America, wherever they are, the Lebanese play a major role in the economy of the countries. They are also present in the culture and literature sector. I cited Amin Maalouf, but I could quote Dominique Eddé, our current Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak. All this is the result of the quality of the women and men of this country, and of the education. We are there for that. » The lighthouse shines a light on Lebanese youth, more than 45% French-speaking.

The new ambassador is launched, he is full of praise for this country, this people, who have become one of France’s friends. La Francophonie is, truly, at the heart of its mission. “Yes, we will continue to cooperate to strengthen the Francophonie in Lebanon. But we must offer the French-speaking youth of this country employment opportunities in Lebanon…”

64 schools at the top of the bill

On the Lebanese ground, with a team of nearly 300 people, the French embassy in Lebanon is one of the largest embassies in the region. France is therefore providing the human and financial, political and strategic resources to not only confirm its presence but to develop and amplify it. It thus contracts 64 schools, through the prism of the AEFE.

The AEFE? It is the Agency for French Education Abroad, which is a leading educational operator, directly under the supervision of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. “We must add to these French-speaking schools more than a hundred others which are in the orbit of our cooperation. The approved ones are, therefore, 64 in number, and the labeled ones number 107.”

Thus, and this is not insignificant, Lebanon is the first country in the world to offer French-speaking education to its youth. In the ranking of certified establishments worldwide, 140 countries are concerned. Even the United States, which comes second behind Lebanon, only has around fifty establishments. Lebanon’s lead is considerable. She is the flagship of the Francophonie in the Mediterranean. “In every country in the world, we also have a scholarship system. And, for Lebanon, we have also launched a program to equip schools with solar panels. » Electric energy is a real subject for a country flooded with sunshine more than 300 days a year.

Multiple cooperations
Hervé Magro talks about the companies that are also suffering because of electrical energy. Electric generators, faced with the bankruptcy of EDL (the Lebanese EDF), have replaced the national network which only operates 3 to 4 hours per day. In Lebanon, every house (in remote places), every neighborhood, every village and every town is equipped with these polluting generators which look like small containers dressed in green or black, topped with a bent chimney.

“Yes, our cooperation with Lebanon is numerous. We also intervene in the areas of humanitarian aid, defense, internal security, etc. ” Defense ? Yes, France has a military presence in Lebanon through the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) where 700 French soldiers are participating in the peace effort. This force has been concentrated in southern Lebanon since 1978. In addition, the French army collaborates with the Lebanese armed forces to train their cadres.

Syrian refugees and Palestinian camps

We are tackling a difficult subject: that of refugees. The ambassador emphasizes that this is a priority subject: “Since I arrived, I have met the United Nations and the High Commission for Refugees. But, it’s not simple. It is not a question of numbers, because the situation in Syria is complex. It has deteriorated recently due to the economic and social crisis. » The question of refugees is on his work table. Their number is impressive.

It’s impossible not to mention the subject of the Palestinians. In 1948, during the war to create the State of Israel, the Israeli army pushed them back to Lebanon. Then, a new wave of refugees arrived in 1970, with the installation of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians expelled from Jordan by King Hussein. They are forced to settle in camps. “Today, the camps are organized under the control of the United Nations, with their financing. And, the figures should be revised downwards, because many have gone abroad. » According to some sources, the number of Palestinians living in Lebanon reached a peak of 700,000. From the 1980s and 1990s, this figure began to decline. Today, there are nearly 400,000, according to figures from the country’s General Security.

On the ground, in the ultra-secure camps, on the outskirts, by the roadblocks of the Lebanese armed forces, the problems persist. Last July, August and September, exchanges of fire with heavy weapons took place in the Sidon (Saida) camp, which is called Ain al-Helweh. They left around ten dead. It is the largest of 12 camps in Lebanon. It hosts nearly 100,000 refugees.

The first steps of an ambassador
Arriving on August 21, the question of the first 100 days is asked. It has become very media-oriented, since it was the subject of a real journalistic investigation file by L’Express in 2017. The question was subsequently asked of Emmanuel Macron, for his second five-year term. It generally arises for any new arrival, whether a head of state, a Prime Minister, a business manager, an employee, or an ambassador.

So, Mr. Ambassador, your first 100 days? “In principle, the first days, the first weeks, are, first of all, taking office. She’s pretty fast. Then, it’s making contact with all colleagues. What I generally do is visit each department, personally. Here, you are in a large embassy where nearly 300 people work. As I have already told you, we have a lot of cooperation. After the embassy services, I also met the local authorities. Then, I started to take the pulse of society. Very quickly, I had a visit from Jean-Yves Le Drian. With him, I had an accelerated introduction to the subject. And, now we have the conflict in Gaza. This is no ordinary appointment. » We talk about its security. He did not receive any threats. But he had to cancel some of his visits, in particular those to the south of the country.

Remember that one of his predecessors, Louis Delamare, was assassinated by a commando ordered by the Syrians on September 4, 1981. Lebanon was then in the middle of a civil war.

A world of conflicts and a new world
We conclude by ending with the current conflicts and by summoning, once again, history. “The current situation in the Near and Middle East is linked to the history of the region. If we don’t think in these terms, we don’t understand much about these conflicts. We must avoid the pitfall of remaining in the past. It is not a question of forgetting history, that of Gaza, that of Israel, that of Palestine and that of Lebanon. But remaining stuck in the past prevents us from moving forward. We must reconcile this past with the future. And, we want a future of peace. This is our role. It is that of France. It’s mine. »

For him, the world of tomorrow is a new world, a world of peace. In any case, this is his vocation, his road map.

As we close this article, we learn that the outgoing Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, received Hervé Magro this Tuesday at the Grand Serail. The two men discussed their bilateral relations and the visit of the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, who visited Lebanon from November 1 to 3.

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