The Magazine

The French Connection

Why they're being so helpful in Lebanon.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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FRANCE HAS A LONG HISTORY in Lebanon, a country it administered under a League of Nations mandate from 1920 to 1943 and whose elite is bilingual in French and Arabic. France also has a history with Hezbollah, going back to the group's beginnings more than twenty years ago. In order to appreciate why French president Jacques Chirac is so far hanging tough for the disarming of Hezbollah in the present crisis, it is useful to cast a backward glance. For those 241 U.S. servicemen blown up in their barracks by Hezbollah on October 23, 1983, were not the only Western soldiers to die in Beirut at the hands of the Islamists that day.

A good place to begin the story is 1978, when France contributed troops to UNIFIL, a United Nations force created to monitor the Lebanese-Israeli border. After a long series of Palestinian cross-border raids killing Israelis, the Israeli army had crossed into Lebanon and pushed the Palestine Liberation Organization north of the Litani River. UNIFIL's job was to police the peace. The peace didn't last. In 1982, after another Israeli incursion, some 800 French troops joined an equal number of U.S. Marines and 400 Italian troops to supervise the evacuation of the PLO from Lebanon and serve, once again, as peacekeepers. The same year, Hezbollah was born.

This new Shiite force created and funded by Iran lost no time in targeting the French in Lebanon. First came a rocket attack on soldiers in April 1983; then in August, the hijacking of an Air France jet in Tehran. The hijackers, who belonged to a closely allied pro-Iranian terrorist group, Islamic Amal, demanded France's withdrawal from Lebanon, an end to French military aid to Iraq (then at war with Iran), and the liberation of Lebanese prisoners from French jails.

The mastermind of this operation was Hussein Moussaoui, who, for his next trick, attacked the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut, killing not only those 241 U.S. servicemen but also 58 French soldiers. Two weeks later, the DGSE (the French equivalent to the CIA) learned that the Iranian embassy in Beirut had ordered the murder of Gilles Vidal, number two at the French embassy. The DGSE attempted a preemptive strike. They packed 500 kilos of explosives in a French military jeep marked with the Red Cross emblem and parked it next to the Iranian embassy. The trigger failed, so the French agents tried to ignite the explosives with bazooka shots, but this also failed. The Iranians discovered the jeep and with it proof of French responsibility.

The next day, Tehran pointed the finger at France. An influential member of the Iranian parliament, Hojatoleslam Mohammed Ali Mohavedi Kermani, addressing that body, taunted: "The French people are so scared that they could not find anyone ready to martyr himself with their rigged Jeep operation against the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Only the agents of Hezbollah are capable of doing such things."

It was war. In retaliation for the barracks attack, France bombed the Islamic Amal and Hezbollah camp in Baalbek. The success of this operation is still debated. While some insist no terrorists were killed, a secret report to President François Mitterrand (subsequently made public) listed more than 20 Lebanese Shiite militants dead (39 according to Lebanese forces), along with 12 Iranian "advisers." The Ayatollah Khomeini denounced France as a "terrorist state."

Iran's revenge was not slow in coming. Hezbollah bombed the French embassy in Kuwait on December 12, then killed ten French soldiers in Lebanon.

On December 21, after a bloody truck bomb attack on a French position, the Islamic Jihad (another name for Hezbollah) claimed responsibility and gave France ten days to leave Lebanon or suffer reprisals. On the 23rd, Paris expelled six Iranian "diplomats" suspected of terrorist ties. And on December 31, Islamic Jihad made good on its threat by bombing simultaneously the Marseilles train station and the high speed Paris- Marseilles train, killing four.

In 1984, to Hezbollah's great satisfaction, French troops left Lebanon for good. Nevertheless, Iran again ordered Hezbollah to target France, mostly because of French support for Saddam Hussein. Between March 1985 and January 1987, Hezbollah took 16 French citizens hostage in Lebanon, most of them journalists and diplomats. Some remained in captivity for as long as three years, and one was murdered.

Boasting of Iran's sponsorship of these activities, Sheikh Fadlallah, "spiritual" leader of Hezbollah, was quoted in the French daily Libération as saying: "France is standing in front of a locked vault. There are three keys. The smallest is the Lebanese one. So even if I were holding your countrymen, I could not free them by myself. My little key is not enough. The Syrian key is larger. But it is not enough, either. You need to get the third key, that of Iran."