French president Emmanuel Macron’s surprise visit to Beirut on 6 August 2020, two days after the shocking blast which stole the lives of at least two hundred individuals and devastated large swathes of the Lebanese capital, has been lauded by certain international observers as a public relations coup. The swiftness with which Macron materialized in the city, riding the wave of collective anguish, gave him the appearance of a savior to some Lebanese lamenting the collapse of their country’s state and society. His apparent closeness to “the people” as he waded through crowds in the badly damaged Gemmayze neighborhood—even hugging one woman despite the current zeitgeist of social distancing—conveyed a striking “optics and ethics.” That a foreign leader was present in the streets to offer consolation to victims before any high-profile Lebanese politician invoked an inevitable comparison with the non-responsiveness of the government. His empathetic outpouring, moreover, stood in marked contrast to the awkward physical and discursive distance he affected between himself and Lebanon’s detested ruling class. The uncomfortable body language and the terseness of Macron’s public statements following his meeting with his aging Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun did away with customary diplomatic nicety.
There was something almost de Gaulle-esque in Macron’s affectation of charisma in the Lebanese capital: the impeccable timing, the careful stage management of the public pronouncements, the intuitive ability to read a crowd, the capacity to seem profound while saying nothing. In a June 1958 speech in Algiers to French settlers racked by anxiety over the Algerian war of independence, de Gaulle famously began with the phrase Je vous ai compris! —an empty sentiment into which each auditor could insert a personalized meaning. In a revealing reversal of the historical dominance of the French language in the Mediterranean, Macron addressed his well-wishers on the streets of Beirut last week in a combination of English and French. But the message was the same: “I have understood you.”
Macron’s flash mob diplomacy reawakened colonial nostalgia among some Lebanese in the country and the diaspora. Within hours of his visit, more than fifty thousand signatures had been gathered on an online petition calling for the re-establishment of a French mandate in the country(!) Citing the Lebanese government’s “total inability to secure and manage the country,” the signatories expressed their desire for Lebanon to “go back under the French mandate in order to establish clean and durable governance.” However, all those who—perhaps due to exasperation by the country’s plight in this moment of desperation—believed that Macron has understood them ought to be wary of the intentions of the smooth-talking Parisian president. Macron’s appearance bore the hallmarks of previous episodes in a long roll-call of French leaders, bankers, troops, generals, engineers, diplomats, investors, and missionaries arriving in Beirut—often in episodes of crisis like the present moment. Furthermore, Lebanon’s contemporary catastrophes are in no small measure the consequence of Frenchmen arriving in Beirut. Given the call to turn back the clock of history, it is worth pausing to revisit a few key episodes in French imperialism over the past two centuries and to evaluate their legacies.
Humanitarian Intervention and Capital Accumulation
In June 1860, following inter-communal civil strife in Mount Lebanon and in Damascus, Napoleon III sends six thousand troops to the city. Asserting France’s historic mission to protect les chrétiens de l’Orient, Paris calls for the creation of a safe-haven for Christians (soi-disant); while promising to assist the Ottoman government in the task of reconstruction, peacekeeping, and reviving the local sericulture industry. The latter was increasingly tied to manufacturing interests in Lyons. Napoleon the younger’s grander, undeclared intent, was to establish an “Arab Kingdom” with a French protégé on the throne (the preferred candidate being the Algerian revolutionary-turned-French ally ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri). Through such gunboat diplomacy, he was also attempting to succeed where his uncle had failed. Napoleon the elder had been stopped in his northern advance from Egypt in the Palestinian city of Acre in 1799, before he could conquer either the coastal area that would later become Lebanon or the Syrian hinterland. In his excellent synthesis of modern Lebanese history, Fawwaz Traboulsi borrows Marx’s lampooning of Napoleon III to parody the repetition of this imperial fantasy (the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce).
Napoleon III’s putative humanitarian intervention failed to deliver an Arab kingdom for France, but expanded opportunities for French interests nonetheless came in the wake of the 1860 crisis. The combined effect of multilateral European diplomatic pressure and the reforming impulses of Istanbul led instead to the creation of the mutasarrifiya of Mount Lebanon: a quasi-sovereign enclave carved out of the Ottoman Empire, with an Ottoman Christian governor (mutasarrif), a multi-confessional Administrative Council, French-trained gendarmerie, a semi-independent treasury and exemptions for residents on paying certain taxes. Beirut, which had been excluded from the territory of the mutasarrifiya, grew dramatically in this period to become the leading port city of the eastern Mediterranean, enabled by substantial investments in the built environment by the Ottoman state and foreign capital. In this period of “long peace,” Mount Lebanon and adjoining Beirut became an ever-more desirable locus for French (and other foreign) investors, itching to gain greater access to local markets and to secure advantageous contractual arrangements in the form of infrastructural concessions for communications and transport.
It is worth remembering that the Port of Beirut which blew up so spectacularly last week began life as a majority French-capitalized concessionary company: in 1888 the Compagnie Ottomane du Port, des Quais et Entrepôts de Beyrouth obtained the concession to build and operate the much-enlarged port, expanded in line with Beirut’s rising international maritime trade. Works on the port were completed in 1893. Concessions like this—in addition to those for railroads, electrical grids, fee-paying carriage roads, and tramway networks—were highly sought-after business propositions as they guaranteed generous returns on investment for decades after the initial outlay (the standard contractual term being ninety-nine years). For every transaction, docking, processing of import cargo, transportation of goods or passengers, or cycle of kilowatts, a relatively stable and predictable income could be relied upon. They allowed a rentier relationship of dependence between company shareholders and common citizens as participants in the concessionary economy. Once the asset, or network, was built and operational, it was a golden goose whose eggs could be collected for the long duration of the contractual term. Historians like Jens Hanssen and Simon Jackson have shown how critical concessions were to mediating the influx of foreign capital to the region and shaping its social and economic effects. In my own research, I have suggested that this “concessionary imperialism” was an economic arrangement that worked particularly well in partnership with state structures that were authoritarian, or in post-independence Lebanon’s case largely absent. In either case, indifference to the demands of citizen-users was a constitutive feature. Repairs, upgrades, maintenance: any expenditure that might otherwise subtract from the golden goose’s bounty could be indefinitely deferred, parsimoniously patched, or otherwise overlooked.
As Langdon Winner once observed, “artifacts” (by which he meant, more precisely, urban infrastructure), “have politics.” In directing the terms of access to mobility, resources, and various forms of connection, infrastructure both enables and constrains the social worlds of those who rely upon its networks in everyday life. Infrastructural networks also have durable histories and afterlives. The material, spatial, and organizational logics of Lebanon’s colonial-era infrastructure continue to shape the boundaries of social and economic possibility today, with the additional complexities of the country’s difficult recent history: the legacies of the civil war, and the chronic dysfunction that has characterized the postwar order. Since the current uprising began in Lebanon in October 2019, infrastructural management has been at the forefront of popular anger. The tipping point for the revolt, the trigger event which in the words of Ghassan Hage pushed the Lebanese across “the borderline between the bearable and the unbearable life,” was a blatantly rent-seeking grab by the government to create artificial revenue from contemporary communications infrastructure, in the form of the ill-fated WhatsApp tax. Another of the central targets of the revolution has been the chronically dysfunctional state-run electricity utility Électricité du Liban (incidentally also the inheritor of colonial-era concessionary operations), with its extraordinary levels of debt, daily blackouts, and perpetual drain on the national governmental budget.
The next time that French troops would land in Beirut with the intent to conquer was in late 1918, with the war-weary Ottoman Empire on its knees. French warships had spent most of the Great War just outside the port of Beirut alongside British and Russian vessels as part of a “blockade fleet” which from December 1914 onwards prevented all import and export trade through this vital artery. The transformation of Lebanese agriculture over the previous century from subsistence farming to cash crops for export made the economy sensitive to this tactic, as Entente war planners calculated. While Lebanese nationalist historiography has generally emphasized the culpability of the Ottoman army in requisitioning supplies to feed its army rather its imperial subjects, recent historiography has shown the extent to which Entente powers ignored the pleas of the religious and political leaders of Mount Lebanon to lift the blockade. Eventually, the shortage of foodstuffs and the suffocation of the local export economy led to chronic famine. Two hundred thousand Lebanese lost their lives to starvation: more casualties than during the fifteen-year-long civil war. (A similar logistical reliance on the now-destroyed port threatens to further immiserate Lebanon’s most vulnerable today.)
The calculated starvation of civilians as war strategy turned the majority of the Lebanese population against the prospect of French colonial rule as a replacement for Ottoman rule. The idea of a French Mandate, which had been secretly arranged in the Franco-British Sykes-Picot agreement and was awaiting international stamp of approval, was seen by most as an unwelcome deferral on hopes for national independence. Thus, when General Henri Gouraud disembarked in Beirut to declare the new state of Lebanon (before the League of Nations had approved the legality of the mandatory system), he was greeted with only sporadic displays of support from the devastated population. In her landmark account of this period, Elizabeth Thompson argues that due to wartime privation, the collapse of state structures and the loss of many male heads of households, Lebanon faced a “crisis of paternity.” Gouraud cast himself as a stern-but-generous father figure ready to both discipline and educate the Lebanese, now cast as enfants de la colonie. A similar kind of moralizing paternalism could be tasted in Macron’s speechifying as he dressed down Lebanon’s leaders last week. There was an additional resonance with the dynamics of French Mandate rule in that Macron received the heads of the various political factions at the French ambassadorial residence, le Palais de Pins: it was from the steps of this selfsame building that Gouraud proclaimed the birth of Lebanese state on 1 September 1920; and it was to this building that Syrian and Lebanese political leaders were often summoned during the interwar years for audiences with Gouraud and his successor high commissioners.
The construction of the Lebanese colonial nation-state under France’s imperial supervision involved enlarging the territory of the mutasarrifiya (now dubbed le petit Liban) to a larger area (le grand Liban). Such a project—first systematically outlined in the Lebanese nationalist Bulus Nujaym’s 1908 tract “La question du Liban”—would allow a more viable economic basis for an independent state (greater access to the coast as well as the agricultural lands of the Biq’a and ‘Akkar, which might prevent a repeat of the starvation of the Great Famine). However, a larger Lebanon threatened Christian numerical dominance. Robert de Caix, first secretary-general of the French High Commission and Gouraud’s right-hand-man, oversaw the expansion of the territorial boundaries of Mount Lebanon with a careful eye to engineering a slim demographic majority for Christians. Recently declassified correspondence between de Caix and Gouraud confirms the cynical logic at work in this territorial decoupage, guaranteeing unstable Christian majoritarianism. In moments of crisis, de Caix predicted, the perpetual existential anxiety of Lebanese Christians would compel them to appeal to France as their savior and protector. Stage cue: enter Emmanuel Macron!
One of the more remarkable features of Lebanon’s current popular revolution has been its determination to take the sectarian division of power in the country head-on. However, most international journalistic commentary insufficiently diagnoses this congenital cancer in the Lebanese body politic. The distribution of public political office on the basis of nominal religious affiliation, did not magically materialize out of thin air in the 1943 National Pact, as many accounts of Lebanon’s present troubles tend to suggest. It was, rather, a modus vivendi that was crystallized in the long process of foreign-mediated national construction across several generations of communal crisis during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “culture of sectarianism,” as brilliantly dissected by Ussama Makdisi, was the product of both nineteenth century Ottoman modernization and European colonial intervention and tutelage. This culture, having developed in Mount Lebanon, required additional work in expanding and institutionalizing it during the interwar years of the Mandate.
As a politico-legal system, Lebanon’s sectarianism thus developed over time between the Règlement Organique of 1861, the foundational document of the mutasarrifiya, and was reaffirmed in the 1926 constitution, well before the National Pact of 1943. There were, nevertheless, important distinctions between each of these documents: the 1926 constitution, while calling for a sectarian division in the cabinet, parliament, and administration (in Article 95), did not broach the distribution of executive power, as the 1943 National Pact did. Sectarianism also continues to define and constrain the personal, private lives of Lebanese, through the operation of the personal status system, which forces citizens to identify as members of one of the eighteen sects recognized by the state and effectively outlaws secular, interreligious marriages. The codification of this legal and bureaucratic apparatus was one of the central legislative preoccupations of the Mandate authorities. French hands and calculations helped shape and solidify the sectarian system in Lebanon at each incarnation, while situating France’s imperial practice as above and apart from local “primordialism.” At the same time that France actively participated in the creation of essentialized sectarian identities, it positioned itself as a kind of arbiter uniquely positioned to adjudicate between the confessions.
Given France’s incessant longue durée history of inference in Lebanese affairs, to hear Macron blithely assert that Lebanon’s “political, moral, economic and financial crisis… implies historical responsibility from the leaders in place”—with no reference to the historical responsibility of his own country—is more than a little ga(u)lling. To those who might be inclined to let bygones be bygones, and take Macron at his word that France has no neocolonial intentions in the country, it is legitimate to question the “political, moral, economic and financial” basis (to borrow his language) on which he can claim the authority for a “new political order”, as he did in Beirut earlier this month: “I am here today. I will propose a new political pact, this afternoon.” His choice of words was telling: a “pact” implies a truce agreement; a coming to peace between warring parties. What Macron really wants is the 1861–1926–1943 logic revamped: an arrangement in which the warring confessions can put aside their differences, pay their debts on time, and rekindle their special friendship with France.
More specifically, Macron wants a couple of other things. Électricité de France—France’s largest, and largely state-owned electricity company—has a masterplan ready (drawn up in recent years at the request of the World Bank, and the behest of Lebanon’s international creditors) to solve Lebanon’s chronic electricity shortages. With unmistakable echoes of the kind of concessionary imperialism that precipitated the French Mandate a century ago, Macron insisted during his visit to Beirut that overhauling the energy sector was at the top of the list of priorities among the “strong political initiatives” needed to “fight corruption.” As is so often the case with overseas adventuring, the French president also welcomes the distraction from ongoing social and economic tensions back in France. The ever-lively and sharp-tongued George Galloway has accused the French president of being a “little Bonaparte,” distracting the attention of the French public from the troubles of the metropole. Many who embraced Macron’s visit in the desperate days following the port explosion are now wary of what they said, or signed, now that the dust has settled and that shock and anguish have given way to other emotions: among them anger, suspicion, and anxiety.
Macron has vowed to return to Beirut on the first day of September—which just happens to be the centenary of the declaration of Greater Lebanon by General Gouraud—in order to check in on the progress of his “new political pact”. But Lebanon is done with “pacts.” The time has arrived for genuine transformation of the entire political system with a view to the accountability to the Lebanese people first, before leaders, parties, or the international donor class. As Mona Fawaz has articulated, this requires not only constitutional reform to disassemble official sectarianism, but also the independence of the judiciary, and long-delayed bringing to justice of warlords-turned-politicians for the crimes committed during the civil war, and the war of the government against the people they have waged since.
To return to Marx and Napoleon Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The people of Lebanon have lost count of how many times French personages have appeared on their shores with promises of salvation. This time, in 2020, the appearance of Macron has the quality of tragicomic amnesia. Lebanon’s twin afflictions of rentier capitalism and zombie sectarianism are deeply entangled with the history of Frenchmen arriving in Beirut. Perhaps it would be good to keep that in mind the next time Emmanuel appears on the scene.
 I am grateful to the editors of Jadaliyya for reading an earlier version of this essay and providing helpful criticisms and suggestions.
 Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 37–38.
 Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon, 43–44; Malek Abisaab, “Warmed or Burnt by Fire? The Lebanese Maronite Church Negotiates French Colonial Policies, 1935,” Arab Studies Quarterly 36, no.4 (2014): 292–312.
 Jens Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 14.
 Engin Akarli, The Long Peace: Ottoman Lebanon, 1861–1920 (University of California Press, 1993).
 For more on the operation of these concessions, see Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut, 84–112.
 See, notably, Hanssen’s Fin de Siècle Beirut and his article “Malhamé – Malfamé: Levantine elites and transimperial networks on the eve of the Young Turk revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43, no.1 (2011): 25–48, along with Jackson’s “Diaspora politics and developmental empire: the Syro-Lebanese at the League of Nations,” The Arab Studies Journal 21, no.1 (2013): 166–190.
 Stephen Pascoe, “A “Weapon of the Weak”: Electric Boycotts in the Arab Levant and the Global Contours of Interwar Anti-Imperialism,” Radical History Review 134 (April 2019): 116–141.
 Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, no.1 (1980): 121–136.
 Melanie Tanielian, “The War of Famine: Everyday Life in Wartime Beirut and Mount Lebanon,” (PhD. Diss, UC Berkeley, 2012), 28–34. Cf. Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press), 2000, 19–23. Cf. also Graham Auman Pitts, “‘Make Them Hated of All Countries’: France, Famine, and the Creation of Lebanon,” in Richard Tucker et al. (eds). Environmental Histories of World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018): 175–190.
 Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens.
 Graham Auman Pitts, “Fallow Fields: Famine and the Making of Modern Lebanon,” (PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2016).
 De Caix à Gouraud, 29 janvier 1922, Ministre des Affaires Etrangères–La Courneuve (MAE-LC), 399 PAAP/144. This same reflex would apply, de Caix believed, to Alawis and Druze in the statelets awarded these imagined communities in Syria at the start of the Mandate.
 Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
 See Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Harvard University Press, 2010).