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University of Balamand > Administration > Presidency > President Salem > SpeechFrancophile

Francophile but not Francophone


This talk, Mr. Ambassaor, is meant as a personal testimonial.  It is written with affection and a high degree of informality.   I wanted to talk about France in French.  My reputation amongst my colleagues at the University is clearly established – as the merciless assassin of the French language.   I have always proclaimed that I am Francophile, not Francophone.

Why I am not Francophone is easy to relate.  I studied French for some two years in elementary school.  Why Francophile, is not as easy to relate, but I will attempt an explanation.

I was born in Bterram, a village in al-Kurah, Lebanon in 1930 at the apex of French mandatory power over Lebanon .  The bon jour and bon soir had already triumphed over the village greetings of sabah al-khayr and masa al-khayr.  The hat was rapidly replacing the tarbush.   The necktie was making its way around our necks.  My young mother Lamya, a daughter of a shaykh, with higher claim to culture than my Plebian father, chose to call me by the French Elie, rather than the Arabic Ilyas.  Umm Elie sounded more palatable to modern ears that Umm Ilyas, and definitely put the new born in a more contemporaneous context.  Names could have ontological impact. We emulated the French in the 1930s as our ancestors emulated the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Mamluks, and the Ottomans.  Mimesis is an essential ingredient of culture and of cultural change, and I will not lightly dismiss it.  French in the 1930s was all around me in snippets – in salutations, in social discourse, and in what passed in Bterram as fashion and protocol, naturally for the very few village literati.

It seems to me as I reflect on some six decades in the past that I saw the world through French eyes in a most unusual turn of events in world history at the end of the 1930s.  World War II was erupting globally and each child experienced it in his own way. 

As war broke out in Europe , troops on either side of the conflict were manning their stations throughout a world brought together by imperial interconnections.  And tiny Bterram claimed a place in this imperial network.  Troops under the Bleu – Blanc - Rouge came not only from France , but in the case of Bterram and the Kurah region, came mostly from its colonies and protectorates.  Those in our village who carried the French flag proudly and fought for it were Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans.  They were Hassan, Walid, Omar, Ahmed, Hamid, Muhammad, and we were very close to them.  They spoke our language, but in a strange accent; they had our sense of humor; they were pretty much our people.  Their officers were French.  The soldiers marched, the officers rode horses.  The soldiers slept in make-shift barracks.  The officers were billeted in homes, and were served by soldiers as valets, footmen, guards, horse groomers.  Every morning the troops went on maneuvers.  They sang the Marseillaise in broken French.  They seemed content, indeed happy in their destiny as soldiers of France, a generation away from their revolutionary offspring.

Soon I will be in ‘Aba School , some forty minute walk from Bterram studying French language and French History.  L’Histoire de France was all the history we learned.  We followed Napoleon in his conquests and cheered his victories in Europe , as in Egypt and Palestine .  There is something in l’Histoire de France that encapsulates you and claims you in your entire being.  A strange mystique permeates the mission civilizatrice de la France .  Once you are caught in its subtle refined tentacles you can no longer escape.  Irrespective of the time spent in the grip of the French language you find yourself in the company of Racine, Molière, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau.  You find yourself relating fables by La Fontaine, recalling lines by Racine and Molière, and in my case I found my hero in the great poet Mallarmé. French culture descends on you from all angles and directions, and you carry the burden lightly and with a degree of joy.  The French culture gives you a ticket into the hallowed halls of modernity.

Between ‘Aba and Bterram, and prior to my teen years I learned a lot about the war.  The two radios in the village brought news from the European front.  We learned of the brave stand of Churchill and of the gamble of Charles De Gaulle.  It is true Paris fell, but to us it seemed to be rising again in the valiant challenge  De Gaulle was making throughout the Free World.  In time, the Olympian General, the hope of the French Liberation Movement, arrived in Lebanon .  He cheered the allied troops and toured our region.  Advance notice reached our ‘Aba school that De Gaulle’s entourage will pass by and might even stop to acknowledge our cheers.  We are all to line the road on either side carrying French flags.  For some unknown reason I was selected by our highly elated principal to present the great General with a bouquet des fleurs and to recite to him a poem hastily composed by our French teacher, now a fine grandmother in Qilhat.  I saw her a few months ago and reminded her of the historic event.  She is still composing poetry.

Sure enough, the General’s entourage appeared from a distance.  We shook and shuddered in excitement.  The General, with a good ear for cheers and for adoring masses, stopped just at the school entrance.  The principal signaled me, and I moved forward, stood in front of the giant, recited my lines loudly and confidently: je suis etc..

I then presented him with the bouquet des fleurs, which he graciously accepted and as graciously handed it to an aide.  De Gaulle lifted me to his soaring heights, deposited a kiss on each cheek, praised my poetic flights, and released me to the ground.

I was instantaneously transformed from an average pupil in an average school into a mythic figure with the god-like figures on Mount Olympus .  So I joked after the encounter.  I hope it was a joke.

The persons who have first claim on our affection are the writers, the poets, the philosophers, more so than the Generals.  The former generate the ideas, the latter implement them.  The former are the creative elements in society.  They are the ones who make history, generate revolutions, and set ideal paradigms for mankind.  In this realm no culture in modern times has offered more of its mind and soul than the French.  From them emerged the giants of human thought, - Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu…(Name a few before and about the French Revolution).

From them came the “Rights of Man” and the great trinity of the French Revolution – Liberte, egalite, fraternite.  Other cultures have had their coups d’etat, their wars of independence, but France had a revolution in the name of mankind.

When Russian Slavophils wrote their brilliant novels in the 19th century they had Paris in mind.  When Nietzsche bemoaned the decadence of the West, he held nevertheless deep admiration for Paris and what it stood for.  The writers and philosophers I admired the most in Russia and Germany , turned out to be closet Francophiles.

We, in Lebanon , have our reasons for loving Paris , and for emulating it, even to claim that our Beirut is the Paris of the Arabs.  Paris was itself intellectual and attracted the intellectuals of Europe ; so was Beirut .  Paris had its immigrants from all the oppressed regions of the world, so did Beirut .  Paris was the haven of dissidents flering the reactionary regimes of Europe .  So was Beirut , the haven of Arab dissidents from Arab Authoritarian States.

When Paris fell all those who were touched by it cried, blamed themselves, sang its praises, and yearned for its resurrection.  Similarly when Beirut fell in the 1970s, its lovers: writers, poets, and dissidents cried out in self-recrimination.  Qibbani wrote, Fayrouz sang??

We know Paris as the epitome of the good life, the Paris of fine hotels, of exquisite restaurants, of wine, of the superior baguette and croissant.  We know Paris as the world setter of style, of cosmetics, and of beauty in virtually all realms of life.  The grandeur of Paris was the envy of Tsars, emperors, kings, and dukes.  Hitler urged Speer to build a Berlin that will surpass Paris .  When he failed, he wanted Paris destroyed.  His very General, the quintessential Nazi, could not execute his Fuhrer’s command.  The Paris he controlled was too beautiful, too much a trust of the human race to be sacrificed at the atlar of a mad man.

This is the testimony of a Lebanese Anglophone, the testimony of one who has seen France through a glass darkly.  How much more eloquent, enthusiastic and to the point is the testimony of those who know France face to face, like many of my colleagues at the University.  I have, however, one perspective which none of them has.  Often in the appreciation of a culture or the relations between cultures, one event, one anecdote can be more instructive than a learned essay.  It so happened that in the 1980s I was Foreign Minister of Lebanon, at times de jure, at others de facto.  In this capacity, I dealt with the heads of states and foreign ministers of all nations that were concerned in the Middle East conflict, and in Lebanon ’s internal war.  All foreign ministers expressed interest in Lebanon and showed some recognition of its importance in the region.  Only one Foreign Minister, however, looked at Lebanon as an issue in the very heart and mind of his own people.  He looked at Lebanon with love and commitment, and was ready to give it his all.  He was Claude Cheysson, France ’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  At first encounter he felt dismayed that I spoke a French that bore little relation to the pride of the French.  In shortwhile he was pleased   I was a Francophile of unusual credentials.  Francophone or not, the French Foreign Minister took out a page-long list of addresses and telephones and gave it to me.  Here is a list of all my telephones – public and private, weekdays or week ends, and you may call me anytime in day or night, and I will be there listening to you.  You may give a days’s notice or an hour’s notice, should you need me in Beirut I will be there within hours.  This was a language unheard of in diplomatic discourse.  It was the language of a person with deep affection to the aggrieved country I represented.  French Foreign Ministers are assigned by the State a palace outside Paris as a family retreat.  Cheysson urged me to spend a weekend with his family in this place.  I was pleased with the prospect. At dinner with his family he sat with a broad smile, as his wife listened in amazement to the broken French of the very country where France made its greatest cultural and linguistic impact.  She smiled as much at my funny French as at my audacity in speaking it without the slightest evidence of hesitance or inhibition.

Now that the fortunes of history have brought about new players in our region, and as English is gaining prominence on world stage, I wish to state that we, in Lebanon , and we at the University of Balamand , continue to hold France in highest esteem, and value its language as the custodian of one of the greatest legacies of humankind.

And at a time when we, as a small country, feel cast aside by the powers that be, we still can look at France , a power in its own right, and claim to have with it a special and enduring relationship, one that is not subject to the vicissitudes of times, and to the ups and downs of empires .  Beyond politics, there is always culture.  And beyond immediate interests, there are bonds forged by history and destined to endure. 

In this spirit I welcome you Mr. Ambassador, I thank you for the French support  to our University, and to your own commitment to broaden and deepen this support.

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