Three women enter the Lebanese consulate in Paris with determination. They are followed by another protester filming. The face mask gives them anonymity. But their intentions are exposed and an employee of the consulate stops one of the women. Another storms into the entrance hall, where a portrait of Lebanese President Michel Aoun hangs. A few seconds later the shattered picture lies on the floor. The staff is still trying to kick the group out, but it’s too late: the action has already been recorded on film.
The video of this incident from September 11, 2020 went viral in Lebanon and many Lebanese people still remember it nine months later. For them, it was a courageous and long-awaited act of solidarity from abroad that expressed the omnipresent anger over the lack of accountability for the explosion in the Beirut port. In addition to a lot of praise, outraged accusations of vandalism also shaped the comment columns in the Lebanese media.
In fact, women were neither heroines nor criminals. They lead quite ordinary lives and work in France, for example, in health or education. However, that did not prevent them from joining a section of the Lebanese diaspora that is becoming increasingly politically active.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” says Iman, one of the women storming the consulate. “We planned the protest, we were angry, but we didn’t plan to actually go in. It was a spontaneous decision, ”she recalls. “It felt important, but also scary and exciting.”
The explosion and its consequences had spurred the four demonstrators: less than a month after August 4th, another large fire had broken out in the port. Once again it terrorized the Beirut residents, who feared another explosion. Iman was on a train in Paris at the time when she received a video call from her sister in Beirut.
“The ambassador is a supporter of the president, that’s why we protest against him”
“She showed me the cloud of black smoke rising over the city. I burst into tears on the train,” says Iman. “It shook me to see the ruined Beirut. I could only think of how unfair everything was in Lebanon: injustice, negligence and a lack of accountability – all at once.”
So she wrote to her friends and the next morning they made their way to the consulate. Iman took her daughter’s dirty diapers, the other eggs from the nearby supermarket, and photos of Lebanon’s political elite with the words “Criminals” on their faces. Shortly afterwards the eggs were thrown, the diapers laid out, the printouts pasted on the entrance and the portrait torn off. “The consulate and the embassy represent a political regime that should end,” says Iman. “The ambassador is a supporter of the president, so we protest against him.”
The Lebanese diaspora has always played an important role in political activism. No wonder, given its already numerical presence. Without an official census, the number of Lebanese living abroad remains unclear. The Lebanese statistics institute “Informational International” estimates that 1.3 million out of a total of 5.5 million Lebanese citizens in possession of a passport live abroad. In addition, there are millions of other Lebanese people without Lebanese citizenship.
Despite or because of its complicated relationship with the cedar state, France occupies a special place among the emigration targets of the diaspora. In contrast to other popular destinations such as Canada, the US, Australia, Nigeria, the Gulf States or Brazil, France is geographically closer to Lebanon. France’s mandate from 1920 to 1943 meant that not only the language but also large parts of the culture, the law and even the education system were adopted – especially in Beirut and the Lebanon Mountains, at that time the home of the political and economic elites.
France reopened its borders to Lebanese visa applicants despite concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic
The first wave of emigration after independence came in 1975 when the Syrian army invaded Lebanon as a result of the beginning civil war. In 1990, the war between Christian militias, including the Forces Libanaises, and the troops of the Lebanese army under General Michel Aoun, who was to become president shortly afterwards (for the first time), again forced many people to emigrate. Most of them were Christians of various social classes. Some made a living as doctors, others set up small businesses or restaurants and still live in France today.
It was not long before Aoun fled to the French embassy himself in 1990 after Syrian forces launched an operation aimed at evicting him. For the next 15 years he lived in exile in Paris and founded the “Free Patriotic Movement” – the party with the most seats in today’s parliament.
When a two-month war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, further emigrations followed. Many of those affected from Lebanon’s educated middle class benefited from the relationships and communities already established on their way to France. Those who chose France could usually afford it.
The latest wave of emigration began last autumn. The months after the explosion in the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 were characterized by economic crises and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon with a political initiative and a message of solidarity. He announced a remarkable decision: France would reopen its borders to Lebanese visa applicants despite concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For many Lebanese, France embodies belonging and security”
“We decided very hastily to leave everything behind,” says Rana Khoury. The activist arrived in France in September with her husband and three-year-old son. “We feared that our son would be deprived of the chance of a normal life and future prospects, just as this chance was denied to us for years – so we left. We don’t know how long we’re going to stay in Paris or what we’re going to do here, but we knew we had no other choice.” Like many other activists, Khoury is continuing her political commitment from Paris. France’s political culture facilitates and promotes this form of political participation.
“For many Lebanese, France embodies belonging and security. There is a cultural and political climate that gives Lebanese emigrants a feeling of political participation,” explains Ziad Majed. The Lebanese political scientist teaches Middle East Studies and International Relations at the American University in Paris. He organized himself politically with the Syrian opposition, and in particular with its intellectuals, who had been driven into exile before and after the 2011 revolution.
Majed came to France in late 2005 due to security concerns. His close friend and companion, the writer, professor, activist and journalist Samir Kassir, with whom he had founded the “Democratic Left Party”. Kassir emigrated to France during the Lebanese civil war, after the Syrian invasion and the subsequent first Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. He returned to Beirut in 1993 and soon became a key intellectual in the Lebanese uprising of 2005 that was followed by the end of the Syrian occupation. He was murdered by a car bomb three months later.
Majed then received warnings about his safety and chose France as a place of refuge. He mentions Kassir as a prominent example of an emigrant who found the foundations of his political ideology in France so that he could develop it further back in Beirut: “After Samir came to France, he went through a process of cultural change.”
Paris is a stronghold for a number of Lebanese parties: from the Free Patriotic Movement to the Forces Libanaises
In Paris he met Syrian and Palestinian intellectuals and immersed himself in the leftist ideal of democratic equality, social justice and freedom that would determine his political work, Majed recalls. “When he returned to Beirut, he had the ability to express himself in one language equally Palestinian, Syrian, French and Lebanese.”
But it is not only the activist scene that benefits from the networks in France, Majed points out. “Leading representatives of the political mainstream and the sectarist parties in Lebanon have a political lobby and have established connections with the Élysée Palace, French institutions and within the party elite in Paris. This also includes right-wing extremist parties such as the Front National.”
Paris is a stronghold for a number of Lebanese parties: from the Free Patriotic Movement to the Forces Libanaises. But newer movements and groups that have joined the latest uprising against the establishment in Lebanon, such as “Des Libanais à Paris”, “Beirut Madinati”, “Li7aqqi” and “Justice et Egalité pour le Liban” are also active in France.
Lebanese also play an important role in domestic politics in France: The 15th arrondissement of Paris is known for its high Lebanese population. Therefore, French parties are vying for the votes of Lebanese with French passports. Since 2018, Lebanese voters have been able to participate in the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which has attracted the interest of the Lebanese parties.
“I actually wanted to go back, but that changed with the explosion on August 4th.”
Sections of the Lebanese diaspora also joined the protests, which began in October 2019. Catherine Otayek came to Paris for an internship in 2016 and had never defined herself as politically active. That changed when she saw footage of the protests on social media: “I joined a Facebook group of Lebanese emigrated people and asked if anyone wanted to organize a demonstration in Paris. I knew something big was going on and I felt I had to be a part of it,” she recalls.
She was soon in contact with dozens of people of Lebanese origin, from Berlin and London to New York to Sydney and even on the Gulf, where protests are prohibited. They called their network “Meghterbin Mejtemin – United Diaspora” and worked tirelessly for months to organize protests in almost every major city. They described themselves as a “reflection of the revolution” in Lebanon.
“It’s injustice that gets me down,” she says, and besides the anger, there is also melancholy in her voice. “I wanted to go back, but that changed with the August 4th explosion. It’s not that I want to be away all my life, but I’ve now realized that I may have to. “
Otayek’s political engagement has waned since the explosion. She was visiting Beirut in August. She volunteered for the cleanup for weeks. Now, like many other emigrants, she feels burned out. She sees exhaustion, COVID-19 and a general feeling of disenchantment as the causes. Other interviewees also mention feelings of guilt as a demotivating factor.
In the meantime, many activists in the diaspora have resorted to sending necessary food, money and medicine to their relatives in Lebanon
The downward spiral of the Lebanese currency, the lack of accountability after the explosion, the COVID-19 pandemic and the poor living conditions in Lebanon have drained many Lebanese emigrants emotionally. In the meantime, many of them have switched to sending necessary food, money and medicine to their relatives in Lebanon instead of promoting political mobilization in France.
On February 7th, on a cold Paris morning, five masked demonstrators went to the Lebanese consulate. This time they have red paint with them. Three days earlier, prominent activist Lokman Slim, who had received dozens of death threats from supporters of Hezbollah, was found dead. He was shot in the back in his own car. In Lebanon, the news of his murder sparked anger, especially as confidence in criminal investigations had already hit rock bottom.
The five protesters posted photos of Slim in front of the consulate. They printed the word “Criminals” on several pieces of paper, splashed paint on the walls, and wrote “Murderers” in large red letters on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. After that, they disappeared inconspicuously.
In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult for many Lebanese emigrants to look positively into the future in a country like France; in a country where a better life seems possible and attractive. But parts of the diaspora cannot and do not want to let go. “I can’t just cut off my relationship with my home country Lebanon,” says Iman. “It defines me, defines how I speak, what I cook and what I love. It is my home, it runs through my veins and I will continue to fight for it.”