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Paris’ tears over Aleppo

Dec 19,2016 - Last updated at Dec 19,2016

At 8 pm Paris time, on December 14, the lights of the Eiffel Tower were turned out.

According to the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, the act was a gesture of solidarity with the besieged people of Aleppo, who are still suffering under the brutal Syrian and Russian armies’ shelling of the city.

While some might think of this gesture as a sign of solidarity — a belated one at that, especially because Aleppo has been under constant bombardment for quite a long time now — I beg to differ.

Two historical events compel me to take this line.

The first dates back to 1889, the year in which l’exposition universelle de Paris (the World’s Fair of 1889) took place to commemorate the centenary of the much-celebrated French Revolution.

At the fair, Gustave Eiffel showcased the now-iconic, then-controversial Eiffel Tower, which he compared — in defence of his design — to the Egyptian pyramids.

The Eiffel Tower, interestingly enough, was accompanied by exhibits from French colonies. 

The exhibits from the colonies — displayed at a distance from the main pavilion — included an Algerian section with a Kabyle house, a “Moorish” café and a Tunisian corner.

There were also Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian pavilions.

To attract as many visitors as possible, the organisers staged shows that exemplified the exoticism of the colonies in the familiar centre of the empire.

The goals of that motley exhibition of “peripheral” peoples were manifold, but two stood out: the illustration of the lucrative business of empire and the naturalisation of the idea of “greater France” in the minds and eyes of the French public.

As French minister of commerce and industry, and general commissioner of the fair, Edouard Lockroy, put it in 1887, “out of this grand exposition, France expects grand results. She sees it as a solemn demonstration to honour her among nations, as an act showing her power, as a peaceful victory returning her to her rightful rank in the world”.

Lockroy was able to implement his vision, and the exposition gave the impetus for more colonial expansion, the Eiffel Tower being a veneer for France’s “mission civilisatrice”.

The other event, a more patent form of imperialism, concerns the Syrian Revolt of 1925-1926.

After the end of World War I, Syria and Lebanon, part of Greater Syria, were under the French Mandate.

True to their colonial past, the French under the leadership of General Henri Gouraud, the first commissioner, wanted to drive a wedge between Aleppo and Damascus and divide Syria — as it is now known — into yet smaller states.

In keeping with Gouraud’s legacy, General Maurice Sarrail continued to reinforce this divide-and-rule strategy.

Outraged by such a strategy and driven by other various factors, the people — Druze, notables influential during the Ottoman rule, nationalists and other groups with vested interests — revolted.

Sarrail decided to take drastic measures: With no intervention from the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, Damascus, the stronghold of nationalists, was bombed for about 24 hours non-stop to “pacify” the “revolutionaries” — or to “tunisify” them, as some historians describe it.

To further achieve that “pacification”, the French colonisers sent a detachment that had participated in the Rif War, in Morocco, to help quell the revolt, bearing in mind some of the lessons that the Haitian revolution had taught them and the “pacification” strategies that they deployed in North Africa. 

Apart from the brutality of the French, historians argue that the failure of the revolution can be attributed to the fact that the different “revolutionary” groups were too diverse and sought opposing ends.

The revolt was accordingly quashed.

Yet, Aleppo and Damascus were not separated and remained unified under French colonisation — against the wishes of the French.

Given such a historical parade, the switching off the lights of the Eiffel Tower acquires more complexity.

For one, it signifies the sorrow of Paris, as Aleppo over almost a century now, still has not effectively seceded from Damascus.

Second, it is indicative of the diminution of the French empire.

Despite concerted efforts on multiple fronts, such as supporting and hosting the Libyan Transitional Council and the Syrian National Council, French influence is on the wane.

Most significantly, the blackout of the Eiffel Tower — one of the beacons of the “enlightenment” — may additionally augur a period in which darkness is pervasive and when tears, fake or real, are superfluous.

 

Against that cynicism, Syrian unity — against all oppressors — might be the only beacon of hope.

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