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Lebanon during the French Mandate and its Legacy (4 February 2022)

Lebanon during the French Mandate and its Legacy

Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick


The French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (in French, Mandat pour la Syrie et le Liban) lasted between 1923 and 1946.  It was very influential on the modern day state of Lebanon, because it increased the region’s contact with Europe and the international community and developed it economically.  It brought French institutions to Lebanon, the French language as the second language of the country and the French system of education.

In the aftermath of the defeat in World War I (1914-8) of the Ottoman Empire, which was an ally of Germany, by the Allies, including the United Kingdom and France, territories of that empire, which included Lebanon and Syria, were placed under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom and France.  This was confirmed in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, with Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), representing the United Kingdom, and François Georges-Picot (1870-1951), representing France.  The Agreement was affirmed by the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy.

There was considerable unrest in the area of the French Mandate between the end of World War I and the Mandate’s formal establishment from different religious, political and cultural groups.

From 1923, the arrangements of French and British administration in the region were made a Mandate by the newly formed League of Nations, which had been established in 1920.  The regions of present day southern Iraq, Jordan and Israel (in the area formerly of Palestine) were under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, and Lebanon, Syria, northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey were under the jurisdiction of France.  The Mandate was different from the region becoming colonies of the United Kingdom and France, which at that time had large colonial empires.  Those two countries acted as trustees during the period when the region moved towards self-government and became independent countries.

To the north of Lebanon, important changes took place in Turkey, where the modern republic of Turkey was created in 1923 from the region of the Ottoman Empire which occupied the area of Asia Minor.  Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) became its first President in 1923 until his death, and he instituted many reforms to modernise and to westernise the country.  Atatürk’s presidency occupied a significant part of the period of the French Mandate in Lebanon.

To the south of Lebanon during the period 1923-48 was the British Mandate in Palestine, formally the ‘Mandate for Palestine’, which included Palestine, which is the area of the present day state of Israel and Palestinian inhabited territories, and the Transjordan, which is where the present day nation of Jordan is situated.  During this period, there were both Arab and Jewish national movements in Palestine, which led to armed conflicts.  It was also a period of significant Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine in response to the rise of Nazism in Germany.

At either end of the chronological period under discussion were two events related to the creation of a Jewish state to the south of Lebanon, which was extremely influential on Lebanon.  The first was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which was a public statement by the British Government in support of the creation of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine.  The second, supported by Zionist movements, and increased Jewish settlement in Palestine after World War I, was the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948.

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), the British army officer, who was known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ operated in this area during World War I, including marching on Damascus with Arab forces in 1918.  He led a revolt of the Arabs, and hoped to form an Arab state in the region.  The Arab Revolt (1916-18) took place with this goal in mind.  The British General Sir Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which supported the Arabs in the campaign.  However, these hopes were dashed by the French and British Mandates, which implemented the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration and Zionist movements, which led to the formation of the state of Israel.

To the east of Lebanon was the part of the Mandate, which was occupied by Syria, and became the independent country of that name in 1946.  From the end of World War I until independence, there was unrest at various times in the region by groups seeking independence from France.  The Syrian Republic was formed in 1930, but France did not wish to end its rule, particularly after Hitler became leader of Germany, and it thus wished to maintain influence in the Middle East. 

After World War I, the area of the present day Hatay Province of Turkey, which is the area around Alexandretta, modern İskenderun, at the north of Syria next to the Turkish border, was included in the French Mandate, as the Sanjak of Alexandretta.  During the Mandate, there was continual unrest in the region, and pressure from the Turks in the area and from Atatürk for it to become part of Turkey.  After a referendum in 1939, Hatay became a province of Turkey, although the area remains disputed.

The area of the French Mandate was divided into six states, which reflected the different sects of the region.  They were initially Greater Lebanon, Damascus, Aleppo, Alawites, Jabal Druze and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, although the division of the Mandate changed over its course.

During this period, the traditional ethnic and religious composition of Lebanon existed, being Christian, including Maronite and various Orthodox and Catholic groups, Islamic, including Sunni and Shi’ite, and Druze.  The last census took place during this period in 1932, which showed that approximately an equal number people of Christian and Muslim sects lived in Lebanon, with the largest numbers being Maronite Christians, and Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.  In 1932, almost 800,000 people lived in Greater Lebanon, which is the approximate area of modern Lebanon, whereas the present day population is approaching 7,000,000, of whom about 5,000,000 are Lebanese citizens.

Since the Maronites are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, the administration of the region by France, which is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, was amenable to the Maronite community.

French became the second language of Lebanon and Syria after Arabic during this period.  This was significant because, until its eclipse by the English language after World War II, French was the international language of diplomacy, and the second language of many countries, not just of the French Empire and its protectorates.  Thus, Lebanese who spoke French had access to a broad international community, which was centred on France, which was then a great power.

During this period, the French system of education was introduced into schools and universities in Lebanon.  This meant that many people were educated in a French style, were fluent in French and were knowledgeable about French culture.  French mission schools were common and the standard of education was significantly increased from what it was like during the Ottoman Empire.  English was also common in higher education, such as at the American University of Beirut, which was founded in 1866 and received its present name in 1920.

Politics of the period were partly focussed on the creation of an independent country of Lebanon, and the end of the French administration.  Lebanese politics was influenced by the religious groups of the country.  However, the French High Commissioner of the Levant, which was from 1941 named the General Delegate to Syria and Lebanon, was in supreme control during the Mandate.

Most significantly, in 1926, the Lebanese Republic was created, which was a democratic parliamentary republic, and the 1926 Constitution introduced the convention that the three main constitutional offices (President, Prime Minister, and National Assembly Speaker) were usually respectively assigned to a Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shi'a Muslim, Lebanon's three largest confessions, respectively.  This convention was continued with the unwritten National Pact of 1943 with the establishment of the Republic of Lebanon and continues to this day.  Charles Debbas (1885-1935), who was a Greek Orthodox, was the first President of Lebanon from 1926-34.  The Constitution was suspended by the French authorities at the beginning of World War II in September 1939.

The major features of the economy of this period were the increase in trade, which was centred on Beirut, while the traditional agricultural sector including the silk industry declined, and the country was affected by the worldwide Depression of the end of the 1920s to the 1930s.   Furthermore, communications and public utilities were improved.

Beirut, the cosmopolitan city with its mix of cultures, is famous for buildings of a European style from the period of the French Mandate.  This gives it the feeling of a European city beside the Mediterranean Sea, incorporating a rich Arab culture.  The period was one of significant expansion of the city from a small city around the port, as it was in the Ottoman Period.

The beginning of the French Mandate led to the creation of wide streets and the introduction of trams and cars.  Buildings of the period were constructed in local sandstone covered with limestone or cement to protect it against the climate.  Concrete and iron were introduced as building materials.  Some of the buildings had a blend of French and Ottoman architecture.  Modern building techniques led to the construction of tall buildings with shops on the lower floors and apartments above.  This in turn led to a change in the demography of the city with people living in a western style in apartments.

Major streets in Beirut were named in this period after French politicians, soldiers and other French subjects.  Rue Clemenceau is named after Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), who was twice Prime Minister of France (1906-09, 1917-20), and, in his latter term, during and after World War I, he was an architect of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and was in office in the lead up to the establishment of the French Mandate.   Avenue Charles de Gaulle is named after Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), the famous leader of the Free French during World War II, and President of France (1959-69), who lived in Lebanon for two years (1929-31), while he was in the army, and visited during the war in 1941.  The names also include the scientist, Louis Pasteur (1822-95), who made important contribution to microbiology, and invented a method of pasteurising milk, which bears his name.  

One of the principal contributions to the cultural life of Lebanon during the period of the French mandate was the National Museum of Beirut, near the Beirut Hippodrome.  It was constructed between 1930 and 1937, and was opened in 1942.  The building is in art deco style, the popular international decorative style of the period, with elements from ancient Egyptian architecture.  It was designed by the architects, Antoine Nahas (1901-66) from Egypt, and Pierre Leprince-Ringuet (1874-1954), from France.  It houses the principal archaeological collection of Lebanon, which had been commenced after World War I.   

Nejmeh Square, also known by its French name, Place de l'Étoile, from the square of the same name in Paris, is in the centre of Beirut.  In the square is the Lebanese Parliament Building, which was completed in 1934 and designed byMardiros Altounian (1889-1958), the Armenian-Lebanese architect.  The building, with a limestone exterior, is in Beaux-Arts style, with early twentieth century oriental elements, including some from the local tradition.  The same architect designed the clock tower in the square, which the Lebanese-Brazilian émigré, Michel Abed, gave to the Lebanese Government in 1934.  The square is notable for the various examples of art deco architecture of the period, of which the clock tower is one.  With its cafes and restaurants, it is a busy social centre of Beirut.

The changing nature of the flag of the region of Lebanon during this period is of interest.  Until 1917, the flag of the Ottoman Empire was flown in Lebanon.  This has a red field and a star and crescent to the left of centre.  It was adopted in 1844, and remains the flag of the present day Republic of Turkey.

The flag of the State of Greater Lebanon, during the French Mandate from 1920 to 1943, is the French Tricolour flag, the national flag of France, with the green cedar tree in the central panel.  It was designed by Naoum Mokarzel (1864-1932), who was prominent in the movement for Lebanese independence.  The cedar tree is the national emblem of Lebanon and was portrayed on the flag for this reason, as it is on the present day flag of Lebanon and on the coat of arms.  

The form of the flag can be compared to those of French colonies.  Although the French Tricolour, superimposed with a local symbol, was used in some colonies, this form differed from most colonial flags of France, which usually had the Tricolour in the canton, which is the upper hoist quarter.  The Tricolour in the canton could be of varying sizes.  Examples of this were various flags used in Syria during the French Mandate, including the flag of the Syrian Federation (1922–1924) and later State of Syria (1924–1930), which had a Tricolour in the canton and a white horizontal stripe between two green ones.  This design can be paralleled by the flags of the British Empire, which had the flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, in the canton, a blue field and a symbol of the region in the field to the right.  The flags of Australia and the Australian states are examples of this. 

The present day state of Lebanon adopted the design of the current flag in 1943, at the time of independence from France.  It was designed by the member of parliament, Henri Pharaon (1901-93).  It has two red horizontal stripes with a white stripe between them, and the green cedar tree in the centre of the white stripe.  The red and white stripes may have been inspired by the design of the Austrian flag.

As I have said, the cedar tree had appeared on the flag of the State of Greater Lebanon, during the French Mandate.  In my opinion, the design of the present Lebanese flag is also influenced by this flag.  We can compare the same design of the cedar tree, and the placement of the tree in the central white stripe, which is bounded by two coloured stripes, one of which is red.  By a simple trick of rotating the vertical stripes to horizontal and copying the Austrian flag, the designer of the Lebanese flag has produced a flag which is different from the one under the French Mandate, but which follows the same concept. 

After the invasion of France by Germany in 1940, the Vichy French government, which was the French government allied to Nazi Germany, with its capital at Vichy in central France, controlled Lebanon and Syria until 1941.  After the area was invaded by the British and Free French armies, and fighting, which included Australian forces, it became nominally independent, but under the Free French administration. 

Independence was granted in 1943, and French and British troops were finally withdrawn in 1946, prior to which the country had become a member of the United Nations and the Arab League.  Bechara El Khoury (1890-1964) was a Lebanese Maronite politician, who served as the first president of Lebanon (21 September 1943-18 September 1952, apart from an eleven day period (11–22 November) in 1943).  He had previously served two short terms as Prime Minister in 1927-8 and 1929.

The first prime minister was Riad Al Solh (1894-1951), a Sunni Muslim, who secretly converted to be a Shi'a Muslim, and served two terms in the office (25 September 1943 – 10 January 1945 and again 14 December 1946 to 14 February 1951).  Khoury and Solh established the National Pact in 1943.

Thus, the period of the French Mandate was significant for the creation of the state of Lebanon, both physically and demographically, as a national entity, for the modernisation, westernisation and economic development of the country under French influence, and a time of the development of the independence movement.


R. D. Barnett and W.L. Ochsenwald, ‘French Mandate’, www.britannica.com/place/Lebanon/French-mandate

National Museum of Beirut: www.museebeyrouth-liban.org

N. Houssari, ‘Beirut: The city where streets still have French statesmen’s names’, Arab News (1/9/20), www.arabnews.com/node/1727676/middle-east

N. Houssari, ‘French mandate-era landmarks fading from Lebanon’s collective memory’, Arab News (1/9/20), www.arabnews.com/node/1727671/middle-east