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Home arrow Education arrow Education Policy and Power-Sharing in Post-Conflict Societies: Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Macedonia

French Mandate (1920-1943)

Having secured a ‘Mandate for Syria and Lebanon’ in the aftermath of World War I, French authorities defined the two new state entities and their borders. To ensure the economic and strategic viability of the newly created Greater Lebanon, they annexed the four provinces of Beirut, the North, the South and the Bekaa (inhabited by large Sunni and Shia communities) to the mutasarrifiyya of Mount Lebanon (populated primarily by Christians and Druze).8 Most Christians accepted the new borders, but from the early 1920s Sunni Muslims contested them and ‘made it abundantly clear that Greater Lebanon, as a national entity separate and distinct from Arab Syria, was meaningless to them, and in the long term unacceptable’.9 In protest, they boycotted the 1921 census and their notables demanded the right of self-determination and unification with the rest of Ottoman Syria.10

The Mandatory authorities also set out to build new state institutions in Greater Lebanon: Hanf argues that ‘the Jacobin ideas of many French administrators’ crumbled before the concerted opposition of local leaders, determined to protect ‘the fundamental rights of the communities’.11 Rapidly, the French authorities came to view inter-communal cooperation as the key to stability. This meant that from birth, Lebanon’s institutions were liberal and democratic but not secular.12 Thus, the 1926 constitution institutionalised a political system founded on the sharing of power between the elites of the different religious communities.13 The 1936 Franco-Lebanese treaty, paving the way for independence, further entrenched communal representation in government.14 The confessional political system allowed considerable autonomy in decision-making for the French High Commissioner. Successive French representatives juggled Maronite ambitions to dominate the new institutions and Muslim pan-Arab sympathies, while encouraging the emergence of new political and economic elites to replace traditional religious figures.15

The Mandate also entrusted France with developing public education in Lebanon.16 As early as 1920, a Division of Education (becoming the Ministry of Public Education in 1926) was established to enforce central control over the education system, and to revive state schools.17 The French authorities attempted to use curricula and textbooks to encourage allegiance to the new state and promote peaceful coexistence among citizens belonging to different communities. They warned that ‘a divided country will never be strong’18 and behaving ‘as a colonial rather than as a mandatory power’ diffused primarily French culture.19 French replaced Turkish as the official language taught in official schools, and the teaching of French became mandatory in all schools. Beyond strengthening Lebanese cultural affiliation to France, this policy aimed to weaken ‘one of the major bonds of the nationalist movement, the Arabic language’.20

Similarly, the 1925 national curricula guidelines warned that ‘differences among religious groups have caused a lot of bloodshed in the past’21 and attempted to submerge communal differences by conveying a Christian and philo-European narrative of Lebanese identity. Geography and history devoted a disproportionate amount of time to Europe and France, and most curricula emphasised Lebanese particularism, contrasting it with the history and identity of the Arab Middle East.22

In fact, different identities, informed by different interpretations of the past, thrived in Greater Lebanon, as exemplified by incensed debates over history textbooks for state primary schools in the 1930s. In 1935, two Sunni scholars composed the History of Syria and Lebanon, a textbook reflecting a Syrian nationalist outlook and refuting Lebanese particularism.23 As a response, the 1937 History of Lebanon relied on a Maronite interpretation of Lebanon’s past, emphasising the Phoenician rather than Arab ancestry of the Lebanese population, focusing on Lebanese specificity and downplaying or ignoring the Arab affiliations of parts of the population and their cultural and historic connection with Ottoman Syria.24 Only the vocal protests of representatives of the Muslim communities ensured that the History of Lebanon was never adopted as an official state school textbook.25

The articulation of legitimate, overarching founding myths for a Lebanese state was arduous in and of itself, but ambitions to convey allegiance to the state through schools also faced insurmountable structural obstacles. The 1869 Ottoman Special Education Law had introduced public state schools in the mutasarrifiyya of Mount Lebanon, but in 1918, most schools in Lebanon were foreign and private.26 Indeed, before the Mandate, education was provided mainly by missionary organisations, often sponsored by foreign powers that aimed, through schooling, to gain a foothold in the Levant. Thus, French missionaries educated mainly Maronite children while British and American missionaries focused on the education of Muslim children.27 Ottoman state schools accounted for just over 20 % of the schools in Greater Lebanon, and their operation was suspended in 1918 (after the Ottoman defeat in World War I).28

In the 1920s the Mandatory authorities attempted to revive the state sector and succeeded in increasing the number of state schools from 91 in 1924 to 183 in 1941. Still, public schools came to cater for only 16 % of school children in 1941, while private schools affiliated to local religious communities accommodated 52 % of children.29 This is because the French High Commissioner came to rely on representatives of the reli?gious communities in expanding primary education: as early as January 1919, he offered generous subsidies to communities wishing to reopen or found private schools.30 Article 8 of the Mandate and Article 10 of the 1926 Constitution also established that ‘there shall be no violation of the right of religious communities to have their own schools’.31 Far from violating communal rights to private schools, the state started providing them with regular financial aid from 1928.32

In Greater Lebanon, the divide between private and public school came to coincide with socio-economic and communal cleavages. State schools were expected to ‘remedy regional disparities’ and cater for the underprivileged, so from the 1920s their pupils were predominantly Muslim.33 Moreover, the limited reach of state schools explains partially the failure to socialise the population into overarching identities and to promote allegiance to the state during the Mandate. Through subsidised private primary schools, religious communities continued to convey diverging and exclusive conceptions of identity, rooted in different interpretations of the past and projecting different visions for Lebanon’s future.34

The Mandate was a formative period for the Lebanese state and for its education system. The French authorities envisaged a liberal state whose schools shaped homogeneous Francophile Lebanese citizens, a vision hampered by the necessity to accommodate the local confessional communities. Since the 1920s, the institutionalisation of a confessional political system intertwined the fate of the Lebanese state with that of its religious communities. The structure of the Lebanese education system mirrored this mutual interdependence: by the 1940s, schools were divided into private and public and further fragmented into institutions affiliated to specific communities. Alongside the state, each community retained different narratives of Lebanon’s past and visions for its future and set out to convey them to children in private schools, whose activities were subsidised by the state.

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