Marine Le Pen has been doing a little Trumping in Beirut. Yes, all the way from Paris she came to ride her French presidential election campaign through the sectarian thickets of Lebanon by refusing to wear a veil to meet the Sunni Muslim Grand Mufti. Given the nonsense she spoke to the (Christian) president of Lebanon and the schoolgirl interview she granted to the country’s (Christian) French-language newspaper, many Lebanese – and a few Christians, too – concluded that this wretched lady embarked on her visit with the sole aim of insulting the country’s Muslims.
Of course, it was a publicity stunt. Marine Le Pen doesn’t care about the votes of Lebanese Christians who hold French passports – her Front National (FN) anyway wants to get such dual nationals to choose their country of citizenship, so the poor old Christians of Lebanon whom Le Pen supposedly loves may have to abandon their country of origin if they want France to “protect” them from the Muslim hordes. No, her refusal to wear a veil – a mere headscarf to show respect to the Sunni Mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian – was intended for her domestic audience in France. Muslims want to subjugate women. It was the old message. To hell with Lebanon. Which is surely why she was accompanied on this pantomime by more French than Lebanese journalists.
Had the Mufti been given some decent advice, he might have declined to see this ghostly relic of the French Mandate, the post-World War One military “protection” which the League of Nations forced upon Lebanon. The latter began when a one-armed French general sent his tanks against Arab cavalry west of Damascus and ended not long after Lebanon was forced to endure a year of rule by Vichy France – whose anti-Semitic leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain, would surely have approved of Le Pen’s visit.
No wonder the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – on a trip to François Hollande in Paris, where Le Pen should have stayed – denounced her visit as an insult to the Lebanese people. “I hope France will make a better choice than this right-wing fascist,” he said in his deceptively mild voice. But the infamous veil was essential for another reason – it successfully covered the far more sectarian interference of Le Pen in the Lebanese-Syrian crisis that has afflicted Lebanon, on and off, for 40 years. Her first visit to a head of state was to Michel Aoun, the newly installed Lebanese president whose reputation, until he arrived at the Baabda palace above Beirut, was not dissimilar to that of Donald Trump himself.
Once a fierce enemy of the Hafez al-Assad regime in Damascus, he was later to declare himself a friend of Syria and – so desperate was he to become president – allied himself with Syria’s militia ally, the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. Thus when Marine Le Pen repeated her support for Hafez’s son Bashar in his battle against Isis, she met little resistance from Aoun – of whom more later.
But Aoun’s Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who still blames the Syrians for the murder of his late father Rafic, turned on the FN leader for confusing the Muslim faith with Islamist fundamentalism. “Moderate” Muslims, who were in an overwhelming majority, were the first victims of “terrorism”, he told her sharply. And a clutch of Christian leaders – whom Le Pen presumably thought would take her side – upbraided her for suggesting that France should support President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war. This was the detonation behind Jumblatt’s excoriation of this sad jewel of right-wing French politics.
Not that this affected the florid style of the FN presidential contender who went on to give an interview of unparalleled insensitivity to L’Orient Le Jour, the earnest francophone daily which serves Lebanon’s minority Christian community. Like a child careening through the undergrowth of an old battlefield, Marine Le Pen marched knee-deep through the buried wreckage of civil war. She praised the Syrian government as the only alternative to an Isis victory, urged her own government to re-open the French embassy in Damascus and even drew comparisons between Lebanon and Syria and post-war France and Germany. Would she like to meet Assad himself, Le Pen was asked?
“Of course,” she replied. “Because I want everyone to be around the table. If France and Germany could make peace, I think that Lebanon and Syria are able to make peace. And I think it’s possible to make peace because of the struggle against a common enemy. This common enemy is obviously the Islamic State…I said from the start of this conflict – and I was the only one to say it at the time – that to help in the downfall of Bashar al-Assad was to allow Isis to take over Syria.” The parallels were false, of course. While it was intriguing to see how the Le Pen brain equated Lebanon with France and Syria with ex-Nazi Germany, the post-war peace in Europe was concluded not in the face of a common enemy but to ensure that Europeans never went to war again.
But Le Pen ploughed on. “In Syria, I think that those who staked [their hopes] on a moderate opposition which was unconnected to any Islamist fundamentalism have had to conclude that this opposition, if it exists [sic], was derisory and could not provide an alternative to Bashar al-Assad. In geopolitics, you must often make the choice of the least bad, and for me the least bad is Bashar al-Assad. I am French and I consider that he was not a danger to France.” Le Pen’s remarks were doubly painful for the Lebanese. Firstly, because Levantine Christians, while dependent on Assad’s protection inside Syria, do not necessarily support the government – indeed, tens of thousands of Lebanese Christians still demand the end of the Assad regime and loathed Le Pen’s use of the word “derisory”. Secondly, however, Le Pen scratched the ugly surface of the West’s own compromised policy towards Assad – which originally demanded his overthrow (or promised his imminent demise) and then grudgingly (a la Boris Johnson’s cringe-making performance to the Lords international affairs committee) accepted that he is going to remain in power. In other words, Assad is the only rampart against Islamist fundamentalism in Syria.
Le Pen even thought that Lebanon, burdened with a million Syrian refugees, should send them home as soon as the war is over. It was another attempt to stitch her flagrant anti-immigration politics onto Lebanon; and it came badly undone since Le Pen clearly did not know that tens of thousands of Lebanese are related to Syrians and have extended Syrian families. Indeed, a vast throng of Lebanese regarded themselves as Syrians before Le Pen’s beloved France decided to carve Lebanon out of Syria and create a border between the two after the First World War.
This was all very strange. After all, several FN supporters joined the right-wing Christian militias during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war; and one of them is currently a bodyguard for Le Pen herself. Didn’t they tip her off that Lebanon might not be quite the place to play domestic French politics? Not by chance did one Christian Lebanese writer compare her waffle about French “protection” to the Seventh Crusade and the solemn charter of French King Louis IX, who promised the Christian Maronites of Lebanon “the special protection which we give to the French themselves”.
Perhaps she thought that President Aoun was the Christians’ special protector. Another strange idea. In 1990, then Lebanese General Michel Aoun believed he was the president of Lebanon (albeit unelected) and declared that prime minister Selim Hoss was the Pontius Pilate of Lebanon – suggesting that he, Aoun, might have a more lofty role in the Biblical story. But he enjoyed a comparison to Napoleon when he launched a “war of liberation” against Syrian troops in Lebanon, then ran to hide in the French ambassador’s residence as the Syrians stormed the Baabda palace. Asked by a journalist in his Paris exile if he didn’t feel responsible for the Lebanese soldiers and civilians who had been killed in his earlier conflict with Syria, he replied: “C’est la guerre.” Which sounded more than a little mad. When he eventually achieved the presidency, these Trump-like characteristics briefly ceased.
But then, setting off for Egypt this month, Aoun stated publicly that Hezbollah was part of Lebanon’s defence against Israel, since the Lebanese army was “weak”. The Lebanese army will be less “weak” if it receives $3bn (£2.4bn) worth of arms promised by France and paid for by Saudi Arabia – but why should the Sunni Saudis bankroll an army which is supposed, according to Aoun, to fight alongside the Shiite Hezbollah – which is also fighting alongside the Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad whom the Saudis still want to overthrow?
Aoun’s assertion was in total contravention of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which put UN troops on the Lebanese-Israeli border to safeguard the country’s sovereignty. When the UN’s representative in Beirut objected, she was told that the Lebanese foreign minister – who just happens to be the son-in-law of President Aoun – declined to see her. All of this passed Le Pen by.
But one thing is certain. Unless she becomes the president of France – which still seems highly unlikely – President Assad of Syria will treat Mlle Le Pen with a great deal of caution. He and his allies – including Russia – are still winning their war against Isis and Nusrah and other opposition fighters without any help from France. Who wants the Front National on their side?