June 19, 1945
French Press and Information Service.
On Friday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs outlined to the Assembly what events are taking place in Syria and Lebanon, and what the Government's policy was, and is, concerning them. The speakers during the two sessions devoted to this debate, expressed afresh their viewpoints and feelings which were quite different, as is customary when one discusses Oriental affairs in France. But it brought to light the extreme importance which all Frenchmen attach to this, and their will not to see such a vast problem settled to France's disadvantage as a result of an intervention whose excessive character is only too obvious.
I shall now attempt to draw the main outlines of this affair, hoping that in spite of everything it will be possible to find a solution which will not imply any profound alteration in the confident and friendly relations between Great Britain and France. Indeed, if one rises above the din of exaggeration, designed to deafen the world, one may see that this is the essence of the problem.
I shall speak without bitterness, believing that matters are so grave that nothing which might cause wounds of offended feelings should be introduced by the head of the Government. But I shall do so with a frank conviction that at this point, it would be unworthy of France to want to hide in any way her grievances and intentions.
I do not believe I can better express the policy which France followed for four years in Syria and the Lebanon in relation to these two states and in relation to Great Britain whose power and longings had been brought by unfortunate events to the very seat of an ancient rivalry than by re-reading the telegram I sent from Cairo to Prime Minister Churchill on June 6, 1941, that is two days before the beginning of painful military operations, which the nation will not forget:
"1. I shall appoint Catroux as delegate general and plenipotentiary.
"2. We shall proclaim and respect the independence of the Levant States, on condition that we sign a treaty with them which will respect the rights and private interests of France.
"3. Any policy which would appear to sacrifice these rights and interests would be unfavorable and dangerous, from the viewpoint of French opinion.
"4. In this hour which is as solemn for us as it is for you, I seriously call your attention to this point, which I do not believe is always fully understood.
"5. The harder you strike at Vichy, the more you must show concern in your dealings with the interests and sentiments of France.
"Despair is a dangerous advisor."
Thus, was defined beforehand the scope of our action in Damascus and Beirut so as to reconcile the independent regime which we instituted in these states, and the time-honored position of France.
At the same time, the necessary warning to Great Britain had been formulated. For, from the very first, we had too many reasons to fear that, under the circumstances, her policy would jeopardize not only the work of transition we had to accomplish in Damascus and Beirut, but also the co-operation in the Orient of the two great Western powers and even their fundamental friendship.
I shall not attempt to describe in detail the trials and tribulations which the Government and those who represented it in Damascus and Beirut experienced as a result of the strangely prolonged stay of large British forces, and because of British political pressure on a soil, where, in spite of the temporary weakness of France, we intended to pursue her task of liberation and safeguard what was hers by right.
Although we alone were qualified to lead the states of Syria and Lebanon from a mandatory regime to an independent one, and although we intended to settle without any intermediary-and one eminently interested in the outcome-our present and future relations with these two states, there was a perpetual intervention on the part of London.
This obvious intervention was really too much of a temptation. The disproportion of forces; the monopoly of all outside exchanges and of all means of transportation; the development of a vast machinery for information and many-sided propaganda; political, economic, and cultural agents in uniform-such were the means which enabled the British to exercise a local, heavy and constant pressure on us and at the same time on the Syrian and Lebanese leaders.
To abstain from this, it would have been necessary for Great Britain deliberately to choose as on our part we never ceased to urge her-the spirit of alliance rather than the spirit of competition aroused by our episodic fall.
This pressure ran the whole gamut from friendly requests to pure and simple threats.
Sometimes this pressure was exercised on behalf of the local governments, following hastily-made claims from those local governments-particularly, concerning the immediate transfer of all special troops; or at other times the British authority was felt as a third party; in other words, it was in a position to create division in Franco-Syrian or Franco-Lebanese organizations instituted for security, information, the control of exchanges, or for the collection and distribution of grains.
Sometimes British pressure attempted to substitute British interests for French ones, in fields where French interests could not be contested-as for example, concerning the use of France's share of the Mosul petroleum, the development of the Tripoli oil refinery, and the management of the Haifa-Tripoli railway.
Indeed, from time to time, London issued assurances of principle, but in fact-as the incident of July 23, 1941, proved-it seemed that the aim of all that was taking place in this region was the progressive eviction of France.
It was inevitable that constant interference in our relations with the Governments of Syria and Lebanon by a foreign power, who had obvious interests and equal means of action at her disposal, should never cease to trouble these relations.
We were, and still are, determined to bestow on these states all the outward and inward realities of independence.
In actual fact, in less than four years' time we did this for all countries which the state of war did not force us to control for some time.
At the same time we were determined to settle, in accordance with the states, the guarantees of our time-honored cultural, economic and strategic interests.
But, on the other hand, the war and our own engagements obliged us to contribute to the defense of these states, and eventually to maintain order there.
Therefore, in these matters, we were naturally compelled to proceed in a progressive way only toward the abolition of our control. It must be noted that although Syria and Lebanon justly claimed their independence, they have never, in fact, been independent since the world has been known as such. Moreover, the diversified nature of the religions and living conditions of the populations inhabiting these countries makes the task of any government-which is above all for public order-extremely difficult and problematical.
Can one imagine countries where living side by side are communities as different and as often opposed to one another, as are the Damascenes, Aleppines, Kurds, Druses, Bedouins, Assyro-Chaldeans, Alaoutes, Sunnites, Shiites, Maronites, Armenians, Catholics, Uniates, Orthodoxes, Jews, and Yezidis; and that from one day to the next, in the midst of an immense crisis which is spreading through the world, they could suddenly appear as well-ordered states. During the war, taking into consideration the importance of general balance and local peace for the common cause of the United Nations, we could not, and it was our duty not to, purely and simply abandon these countries in the face of threats which came from abroad or because of the passions that originated from within.
We could not, and it was our duty not to, abandon our right to maintain a very small but watchful French force on this territory.
We could not, and it was our duty not to, throw overboard all that we had acquired by influence and through our fertile action in Syria and Lebanon.
Moreover, had we done this, another power would have taken our place immediately, for although independence is still conceivable even for small states, in times such as we are living, interdependence is an absolute fact which none may evade.
If only for this reason the physical and moral absence of France would immediately have given rise to the intervention of one or several nations.
But then it was only too easy for British representatives to pose as the champions of the more or less reasonable and well thought-out claims of the young states; to pretend to have obtained from us the successive provisions which we had made in favor of these states; and to feed the passions of these states by frequent reminders of eventual recourse to intervention by a stronger power.
Frankly speaking, the easiest explanation would be to attribute the intention of replacing France in Syria and Lebanon as the sole motive for Britain's policy.
Indeed, this might be the aim behind the very activity of a certain local group, which is eager, clever, and experienced in the intrigues and patronage of the Orient, and which by a long tradition of education is disposed to rivalry with France in the complex countries bordering on the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Nile.
It is absolutely true that on many occasions the intrigues or brutal actions of these enterprising men who, according to circumstances, can be made to appear or disappear suddenly, who may be supported or disowned; of whom a legend may be created at the right moment; and who can also be suddenly disgraced; played a capital part in the difficulties which were created for us.
Undoubtedly, the presence of petroleum in certain regions of Syria, and the advantage of controlling the terminal of each pipeline which brought petroleum from the heart of Iraq to the Mediterranean-including France's share, which is our only petroleum property in the world-may have influenced Great Britain's attitude.
But other reasons also inspired the leaders of the British Empire. No one can consider as a simple pretext their constant anxiety concerning the repercussions of the Syrian and Lebanese events on Britain's position in other Arab countries of the Orient.
Although England has integrally maintained the authority of her mandate over Transjordania and Palestine; although she powerfully reinforced her control over Iraq since the insurrection of 1941; although she is directly governing Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; although she has a firm grasp on all the Arab countries because of the Near East supply center she organized in Cairo for all imports and exports and although she is maintaining military, air, and naval forces, whose total strength amounts to 600,000 men in the Near East; England is a prey to great anxieties concerning the future of her position. It might have seemed to her that the interests of both of our nations and of the Arab states consisted in the joint adoption by France and Great Britain of a common policy such as we have proposed many times.
But without a doubt, England believed it would be more advisable to focus on France the hostile movements of public opinion in the Near East.
It remains to be seen to what extent their final reckonings were correct. In spite of all this, because of the calmness and firmness of France's representatives and the common sense of the majority of the population, public order was not disrupted until May 8, 1945.
But it was from this day on that the increasing tension, which had been created in our relations with the Governments of Damascus and Beirut led to riots and placed our troops in a state of self-defense, forcing them to retaliate and maintain order in conformance to their duty and rights such as were agreed upon by the Franco-British treaty.
It was just when the situation had been re-established everywhere except in the Djebel Druze that the British intervention took place, under military and diplomatic conditions indicating that it had been prepared beforehand. While the head of the Provisional Government was being publicly informed by the head of the British Government of a possible clash between French and British forces, our troops in the Levant were officially threatened in writing that they would be shelled by their comrades-in-arms of Bir Hakeim, Tunisia, Italy, Normandy and Germany. As far as we are concerned, we did not want this to occur and feel no embarrassment in saying so.
Consequently, our troops received a government order to cease firing wherever this had not yet been done, to maintain their positions, not to oppose the movements of British troops, and not to fire upon the latter unless they themselves were fired upon.
Everyone knows what took place. Under pain of fighting troops of our former Allies, our troops were obliged to desist from policing several Syrian towns and regions, and let the British usurp their prerogatives.
The result was an immediate recrudescence of murders and acts of pillage committed against our citizens-whether they were servicemen or civilians-who were no longer protected by anyone.
Rather than repress these crimes, the British authority proceeded with the evacuation of many French men and women living in Syria.
Therefore, because of the myth that Britain was maintaining order, we were forced to abandon the schools, hospitals, and a telephone network which our citizens were operating, a fact which may not be contradicted . . .
As for the Governments of Damascus and Beirut, they were notified by the British military authority that it was taking these measures for the maintenance of order, as well as the re-enforcement of security, the supervision and control of exchanges and the distribution of food, which had made these Governments indignant when we, in the general interest, participated in them, and which are now exercised by, and benefiting, others.
Because of this and for the reasons of elementary common sense, we did not want to go as far as a Franco-British clash, with which we were threatened, and defend by force of arms our rights and dignity, which the future will reveal were linked to those of Syria and Lebanon and of other Arab states. It does not follow that we accept in any way-either today or tomorrow-the de facto situation which was brought about to our disadvantage under such conditions.
We refuse to accept it because this would be equivalent to signing our own downfall if we gave in to this disturbing conjecture. Although we measure full well the seriousness of the wounds we received in this thirty years' war which was waged for the cause of all free peoples; although we are judging with the coldest reason the extent of all we must do in order to become materially other than we are, we do not believe we must settle problems which greatly concern our future and that of others, on the sole basis of our present misfortunes, and the unfair advantage which could be taken.
Moreover, centuries of experience have convinced us that the destruction of our influence would be prejudicial to populations which all the vicissitudes of history have never been able to separate from our influence.
Lastly, the fact that France should accept the abuse of force, committed against her, and the unilateral rupture of agreements which were made, would certainly be disastrous for the very order of the world.
For in our world, which has become quite small, there are but a single justice and a single code of international morals.
Nevertheless, this situation implies-without a doubt-serious drawbacks not only in the Levant, but also concerning the concord between nations. It is certainly not France who would wish to see such a crisis last, inasmuch as this is not a question of making permanent evil which has been done, and which continues to exist, but rather of rectifying it as much as possible.
The least that can be said about the policy of Great Britain is that she did not do everything possible to prevent fire from breaking out, nor did she fulfill her promises at the very moment when she had the occasion of doing so. However, if now or at a later date, Great Britain has propositions to make to us, our ambassadors will be there to transmit them to us. Otherwise, there is no other solution but arbitration through an international meeting. From their suffering and experience, the United Nations seem to draw the conclusion-as does France-that it is through, and by, the means of international co-operation that germs of discord in all the world, which were created either by misunderstandings or by the opposition of interests, may be neutralized. At this very moment in San Francisco, United Nations representatives are concluding the elaboration of a common pact. France, who has nothing to hide, either in her actions or in her intentions, believes that this is the direction to take, in order to settle all the problems which have arisen in the Orient between France and Great Britain as well as between each of these two powers and several Arab states.