When did Lebanese Christians Start Speaking French?

The current narrative (and, I am not joking, given by “experts” in international relations, etc.) is that the Lebanese Christians, like inhabitants of the Maghreb, picked up French from something called “French colonialism”. But the French only spent two decades in Lebanon, replacing the Ottomans after the great war, a period during which it was a “mandate”, something like a concession. Unlike the Maghreb, there was no settlers, no nothing. And not one noticed that the French language was heavily ingrained in the Christian bourgeoisie during the Ottoman Empire.

Take the Titanic. Among the passengers sunk in 1912 (hence before “colonialism”) are the following Lebanese names: Eugénie Baqlini, Catherine Dawud, Helene Barbara, Charles Tannous, Marie-Sophie Abrahim. A decade before the French army arrived. And my own family has among those, born before 1920, names such as Marcel, Edouard, Angele, Laure, Evelyne, Mathilde, Victoire (later adapted to Victoria), Philomene, etc. My mother was named after her aunt, Minerve (born 1905). Many archaic French names.

My grandfather Nassim wrote his correspondence in French, when he was a teenager, in 1910. He was educated in French during the Ottoman Empire, by French monks, because that was what Christian bourgeois did. As to my father, he later went to the Jesuit school — they moved to Beirut for the Jesuit school. (My ancestors on my mother’s side, Nicholas and Mikhael Ghosn, went to Russian school, quite confusing, for the urban Greek-Orthodox felt different from the country bumpkins who were more Byzantine). The Beirut bourgeoisie all acted, felt, did everything as Greco-Romans because they were convinced that they were Greco-Romans, the birthplace of the West. (From my research with the geneticist Pierre Zalloua, they effectively were). French to them was a mere replacement for Latin (there are zillion Greek language authors from the Levant, and at least two in Latin such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Publilius Syrus). Their literature since Michel Chiha and Georges Schehadé was in French. I understood this mystery when I dug deeper into things and cleaned up the BS in the current Arab narrative.

It was the Maronite lobby in Rome who managed to get the French to come create a Greco-Roman state in the Levant, the first Lebanese Republic.

A bit of history. Lebanon supposedly was part of the Greco-Roman world for 1000 years, until the Arab invasion. Beirut was the Roman law school and used Latin, not Greek, etc… But the Arabs didn’t spend much time in Lebanon. Their integration was slow, cities remained heavily hellenistic; we had a confusing period with the Fatimids and the Mameluks… until the Ottoman came in, acting sort of like the Roman Empire (they took Byzantium and acted Byzantine, sort of, given that at some point the Sultan thought of himself as Ceasar’s successor). For 500 years the Ottoman managed to war with Europe while doing business with merchants there, hiring their architects, etc. The historical trick is that it was the Ottomans who were Francophile! (Actually Greco-Roman-phile).

First Wave, 1536: The big thing is that the French king Francis 1 struck a deal with Soliman the magnificent in 1536 for “capitulations”, creating what is called Echelles du Levant, enclaves where Christian merchants from France, Italian States, could do business. Hence Tripoli (near Amioun), Sidon, Aleppo, Smyrna, and Constantinople had French/Italian concessions. They rapidly developed into some type of merchant city states. Later Beirut took over from Sidon because it had a Christian majority (Muslims were against quarantines for some theological reason). None of these cities cared about the hinterland: Alexandria was not Egyptian, Beirut was not Lebanese and refused to be part of the State of Lebanon in 1860. The Beirut dialect has many Italian words; that of Tripoli many French ones. But in general the lingua franca was Italian-Greek-Turkish based. My great-great-great-great-greatfather, Taleb Nabbout Medawar (The “Taleb of my name”, his J2b Haplogroup decries a Greek ancestry), did business with Marseilles and his children had a company called “ATF” (Abraham Taleb Freres) in 1845, using “Freres” in Tripoli, Leb.

(When the Maronites suddenly discovered that they were Catholics without knowing, the bond with France progressively increased, particularly when it became their official protector in 1635.)

Second Wave, 1860s: In the 19th C., under Napoleon III, the French took over education in the Levant, with competing convents and monasteries (while the French state itself was anticlerical, but you need to speak French to understand these contradictions). My grandfather Nassim went to school in the Sorbonne in 1912 (Ecole de Droit de Paris) because French was his language of writing. My mother had Italian nuns teaching her Italian and… French.

I recall my father’s friend describing his Jesuit education; a classmate of his once told me: “the Jesuits wanted the Maronites to speak better Latin than the Romans, better French than the French, and better Arabic than the Arabs”. I cannot vouch for the Latin, but I can safely say that in my childhood I saw many, many Maronites taking pleasure in correcting French people in French grammar, and Arabs in Classical Arabic syntax. But that generation is gone.

See The Formation of Modern Lebanon by Meir Zamir; Levant by Philip Mansel.