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FROM LEBANON TO HAITI, THERE WAS NOTHING GENTLE ABOUT FRENCH COLONIALISM

Colonialism remains a scourge, this is clear in its effects across the globe. France’s role in it was just as brutal in Lebanon, Algeria, Haiti, and beyond.

Earlier this week, Beirut was ravaged by a giant explosion caused by tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port for several years. Thousands have been injured and hundreds have died. Houses and shops have been destroyed, as well as the wheat silos at the port. This all happened during a deepening economic crisis and pandemic, during which the price of food has been steadily rising and hospitals have been overburdened. As I wrote late last year, we witnessed an anti-government revolution spurred by growing anger towards government corruption and inequities fueled by capitalism. 

But what I want to talk about today is an online petition circulating after the tragedy in Beirut.

Roughly 60,000 of you must be out of your minds because you seriously took time out of your day to sign an online petition asking for Lebanon to “go back under the French mandate in order to establish a clean and durable governance.” I’m not sure how being colonized again would help at all to end corrupt rule and encourage Lebanese self-determination, but once again neo-libs find a way to suggest white people are the solution. I’ve even seen argued on Twitter that French colonialism was less brutal than others (that Twitter user better hope no one Algerian sees them irl). 

To me, it sounds like we all need a quick history lesson. Mama, let’s research!

As many apparently don’t know, the Middle East as it stands today is the product of French and British meddling to create arbitrary borders back in 1916 through the Sykes-Picot treaty

Shortly after, the Balfour Declaration was drafted in 1917 whereby the British began their role in creating the state of Israel. Palestine remained under British mandate until they pulled out in 1948; on the same day, David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of Israel. 

The British—with the help of Sharif Faisal of Mecca—were trying to get the Ottomans out of the Levant as the French were conspiring against Sharif Faisal to maintain their hold of Beirut and take over Damascus. By 1923, the French Mandate—made possible through the French cutting up and sticking together random parts of the region—was born. 

Fast forward to 1941 when the Vichy government (France under Nazi rule), appointed a new Lebanese president until Vichy forces surrendered to the French and British months later. Upon the end of Vichy rule, the Lebanese asked Charles de Gaulle to please end the mandate and let Lebanon be independent. General Georges Catroux, a delegate to Lebanon under de Gaulle, proclaimed that Lebanon would be independent on November 26, 1941—how generous! 

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As such, a new Lebanese president and prime minister were elected and the Chamber of Deputies officially ended the mandate by changing the Lebanese constitution. Naturally, the French arrested the president, the prime minister, and other cabinet members and locked them in an old citadel (there are a lot of these in Lebanon). Some un-kidnapped cabinet members led the Lebanese while international pressure to end the mandate grew. On November 22, 1943, France released its prisoners and the Lebanese were independent at last!

This story of the French literally kidnapping Lebanese people because they dared defy them should be enough to make us reconsider the mandate petition, no?

Still not convinced? I’m sure Haiti and Algeria have something to say. 

The French enslaved Haitians on the island in the 17th century until the Haitians rebelled and killed a bunch of slave owners (good) and officially declared their independence in 1804. Over the next few decades, France attempted to extort Haiti of millions of francs to compensate them for the money lost due to the end of slavery. Different Haitian leaders had different reactions—from cabinet member Baron de Vastey saying, “Our independence will be guaranteed by the tips of our bayonets” in the north to Pétion in the south hoping to negotiate France’s recognition of Haitian independence. 

In 1825 the French king decided he would recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation, but only if they paid France 150 million francs. To deliver this message, the king sent a squadron of 14 brigs of war carrying more than 500 cannons. The Haitians understood they were to sign the ordinance or go to war—extortion. To pay this, Haiti was forced to take out predatory loans from French banks. The effects of this economically devastated Haiti, as France prospered. Modern economists estimate that if France was to repay Haiti for this extortion, they would owe upwards of $28 billion USD

Algeria, colonized by France for 130 years, fought for its independence in a bloody war from 1954 to 1962. More than 1.5 million Algerians died in the war. During the war, the French parliament instituted a system by which French forces could hold and interrogate suspects, often by torturing them. In 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron finally admitted to the systematic torture wrought by the French on the Algerians during the war and acknowledged the role of the state in the murder of Maurice Audin, a Communist pro-independence activist. 

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Again, France is not qualified to establish “a clean and durable governance” over the Lebanese. I think France has done enough ~establishing~ don’t you?

While we’re here, though, do you think we could make a petition for the French to stop selling tear gas to the Lebanese government to use on protestors?

I’m still too emotionally raw to write more about why this blast in Beirut is so devastating to Lebanon, but what I do know is that the country’s problems will not be solved through foreign intervention. There are plenty of brilliant people inside of Lebanon whose lives have been negatively impacted by outside interference (whether that is from France, Syria, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel, or Iran). They can and should be the ones to lead Lebanon to prosperity, not Emmanuel Macron. 

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Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarcha-feminist working to dismantle systems of white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy. Her work can also be found in VICE, Bitch, ZORA, Greatist, Teen Vogue, and more. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.

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