France and Hizbullah: The End of the Affair

In 1960, during a joint press conference with then French President Charles De Gaulle, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s then prime minister stated that France was Israel’s greatest friend. At that moment, De Gaulle interrupted him abruptly, asserting that “France has no friends, just interests.” This statement summarizes much of French foreign policy. It certainly applies to the French relationship with Hizbullah. Indeed, there has been a noticeable recent change in France’s attitudes vis-à-vis Hizbullah to such an extent that France’s stance on the Lebanese Shia organization now seems almost identical to the American one. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether France and the United States can work together effectively on the problem of Hizbullah.

The French and American experiences in Lebanon have been quite similar in many ways, particularly when it comes to Hizbullah. The “Party of God” (Hizbullah) is considered a terrorist group by much of the Western world, though not by France or by any Arab country. It was created in 1982, (in part) to expel foreign forces from Lebanon—i.e. the Israeli forces then occupying southern Lebanon and the Italian, French and American forces present in Beirut under a UN peacekeeping mandate.

As a result, relations between France, the U.S. and Hizbullah got off to a very bad start. In April 1983, Hizbullah targeted French soldiers with a rocket attack, although they did not cause any casualties and attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people and injuring more than 120. In October 1983, things got even worse when Hizbullah bombed nearly simultaneously, the French and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers. In November 1983, in retaliation for the deadly October attack on its soldiers, France sent fighter jets to bomb Hizbullah’s camp in Baalbek. The U.S. response to Hizbullah’s attack was more timid: some shelling from the battleship USS New Jersey at hostile positions beyond Beirut. It appears that then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger scrapped a mission to hit Hizbullah’s positions with more force. In December 1983, Hizbullah attacked French soldiers in South Lebanon, killing ten. This time the French did not retaliate and in 1984 French and U.S. troops left Lebanon for good—undoubtedly to Hizbullah’s great satisfaction.