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."

In addition to kidnappings, Iran, working through Hezbollah, orchestrated a terror campaign in the streets of France between December 1985 and September 1986 that killed 13 and injured hundreds. Alain Marsaud, head of the French counterterrorism unit, summed up the purpose of the campaign this way: "Iran, the sponsor of the attacks, used a Lebanon-based Hezbollah network plus a Maghrebi logistics cell to convince France to change its foreign policy."

In fact, the Tunisian mastermind of the 1986 attacks, Fouad Ali Saleh, was close to many of Hezbollah's top leaders. He had spent three years studying in Qom, Iran, under Ayatollah Khomeini. Upon his arrest, Saleh stated: "Islam's stronghold is Iran. Your country, helping Iraq fight Iran, is an enemy. . . . Our main goal is to bring France back to reason by violent actions."

The DST, the French equivalent of the FBI, noted in its final report to Prime Minister Chirac: "Nothing could have been decided without the blessing of either Iranian parliament president Rafsanjani or Ayatollah Montazeri."

The 1990s were comparatively uneventful, but in February 2000, left-wing prime minister Lionel Jospin described Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group during a press conference in Israel. The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, traveling with Jospin, whispered to him: "You went a little too far there!" Whereupon President Chirac angrily reminded Jospin that the president shapes France's foreign policy, not the prime minister. Obviously, Chirac, remembering the bombings and kidnappings of the 1980s, did not want to provoke Hezbollah. Which is why, despite Hezbollah's blood-soaked pedigree, Chirac invited Hassan Nasrallah, the group's secretary general, to attend the Francophone Summit in Beirut in October 2002.

But on December 17, 2003, Chirac's semi-good relationship with Hezbollah came crashing down. By supporting the ban on the hijab--the headscarf worn by some Muslim women--in France's public schools, Chirac incurred the wrath of Sheikh Fadlallah. In a letter to Chirac, Fadlallah threatened "likely complications" if the ban were passed, which it was in 2004.

In recent years, there has been some equivocation in French policy towards Hezbollah. Thus, in May 2004, the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, called Hezbollah mostly a "social" organization. Furthermore, Levitte argued that there was no reason to put the group on the European Union's terrorist list.

Nevertheless, in August 2004, France and the United States cosponsored U.N. Resolution 1559 calling for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of militias including Hezbollah, although the French initially hedged on the second point, stressing that Hezbollah could be disarmed only by the Lebanese authorities.

And at home, France took some unilateral actions against Hezbollah. Notably, in December 2004, France banned Al-Manar, Hezbollah's virulently anti-Semitic and propagandistic television channel, though it did so only under tremendous pressure from outraged French politicians and members of the public. The hate speech common on Al-Manar could no longer be ignored in light of the tough French laws on anti-Semitism. The real tipping point in French policy, though, was the murder on February 14, 2005, of Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon and a close friend of Jacques Chirac.

France reacted by adopting a tougher stand towards Hezbollah. On August 29, Chirac, addressing French ambassadors, stated that every aspect of Resolution 1559 must be enforced, and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy reiterated this a few days later in an interview with the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat. Minister of European Affairs Catherine Colonna went so far as to condemn Hezbollah's "illegal and violent actions" against Israel.

Only on the matter of putting Hezbollah on the E.U.'s list of terrorist organizations has France continued to drag its feet. Hezbollah is a political party, say the French, and to declare it a terrorist organization could destabilize Lebanon. Yet France is edging toward linking the T-word with Hezbollah. Gérard Araud, French ambassador to Israel, declared on September 27 that France wants to give Hezbollah "a share in the democratic process and to understand that in this democratic process there's no place for weapons and for terrorism." He went on to say that putting Hezbollah on the terrorist list would change nothing but would play into the hands of the Arab world, which would see in this action "an American-Zionist plot." France "does not want to give them that pleasure."

Then last year, Iran threatened to reactivate its deadly proxy, Hezbollah, if France were to take a harsher stance against it at the U.N. Security Council. This may explain why President Chirac delivered a speech on terrorism on January 19, 2006, in which he declared that in case of a terrorist attack against French allies (most likely the Gulf monarchies) and/or national interests (including oil facilities), the French response might be nuclear. The message was clearly intended for Iran--and Hezbollah.

Since the current fighting in Lebanon began on July 12, after Hezbollah fighters killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two more, France's reactions have been a mixed bag. While Chirac has criticized Israel for using "disproportionate force," he has also said there is "no other long-term solution" than to disarm Hezbollah "as soon as possible."

While visiting Haifa on July 23, Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy had to take cover from Hezbollah-launched Katyusha rockets, an event that may have reinforced France's resolve. Said Douste-Blazy, "The first condition for a cease-fire is of course the disarming of Hezbollah." The war of words continues. Now let's see what France does.

Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant in Washington.