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France, Syrie et Liban 1918-1946

Nadine Méouchy

Deuxième partie. Jeux de pouvoir et interactions sociales

Bypassing the nationalists: comte Damien de Martel’s “administrative” reforms of January 1936

Peter Shambrook

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Article I of the Mandate Act, League of Nations Official Journal, August 1922, p. 1013.

1Following the suppression of the Great Revolt in the Spring of 1927, French policy was directed primarily towards organising a malleable local government in Damascus which would firstly, ratify a constitution acknowledging the legitimacy of the mandate and secondly, ratify a Franco-Syrian treaty which consolidated French military, economic and cultural interests in the Levant, as well as satisfying Geneva’s concerns i.e., demonstrating that France had fulfilled her international obligation to “emancipate the territories”.1

2In May 1930 the French had imposed a French-written constitution on Syria and by Spring 1933 had established an elected, figurehead government in Damascus, but had still failed to persuade it to sign a treaty - a treaty which, in reality, would have simply legitimised the French position. In Summer 1933, High Commissioner Henri Ponsot was transferred to Morocco, and a more vigorous approach was then applied to Syrian affairs, in the shape of Comte Damien de Martel, who - by a judicious use of “hanging tough” tactics and secret funds to wavering deputies - succeeded where M. Ponsot had failed. On 16 November 1933, following an uninterrupted 16-hour persuasion session that finished at three in the morning, the Syrian Prime Minister (Haqqi al-’Azm), reluctantly signed a Franco-Syrian Treaty - a deliberately imprecise, lengthy document drafted by French officials at the Quai d’Orsay during Summer 1931. De Martel, however, had not reckoned with the nationalist leader, Jamil Mardam.

3De Martel’s plan to have the treaty document rubber-stamped by the Damascus parliament was blocked by Mardam’s attempt to read a petition in the Chamber, signed by about 70 % of the Chamber, rejecting the treaty before it had even been discussed. De Martel reported to the Quai d’Orsay:

  • 2 Ministère des Affaires Etrangères (Paris), Série Syrie-Liban (MAE/SL), Martel to MAE, 21 November (...)

“The nationalists tried hard to beat us to it, in presenting us with a fait accompli and they partially succeeded because they gathered 43 signatures for the petition that Jamil Mardam tried to read out this morning. We only just avoided the rejection ‘coup’ by suspending the deliberations”.2

  • 3 Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, fonds Beyrouth (CADN/B), Decree No. 169L8\R, 21 Novem (...)

4The exasperated High Commissioner suspended the Chamber, initially for four days, then for a further four months, then for a further six months and finally in November 1934, he suspended it indefinitely ( sine die). At the time, de Martel disingenuously declared he had done so in order to “prevent manœuvres of intimidation and the violation of the Syrian constitution”.3 French public opinion, as well as in the Levant, was regularly fed such declarations throughout the 1920s and 1930s and thus encouraged to swallow the line that local governments in the Levant were still too immature and irresponsible to take over the reins of self-government.

  • 4 Syrian Prime Minister 1928-1932.

5De Martel told Haqqi al-Azm to withdraw the treaty and decided to put Syrian politics officially to sleep until he had, in his own words, “recuperated and re-organised the lost sheep” - and that could not be done overnight. From then on, de Martel refused to meet any nationalists and instructed his delegates likewise. To give himself breathing space, he re-installed in the Prime Minister’s chair the shrewd and eminently malleable francophile, Shaykh Taj al-Din al-Hasani, in March 1934, on the strict understanding that the latter’s official brief would focus on economic reform - and not on politics. Shaykh Taj al-Din4 cheerfully complied.

6Until the opening of the Nantes archives in the 1980s, it was generally accepted that de Martel’s priority during this period was what he said it was -economic reform. His true priority, however, remained the future political organisation of Syria:

  • 5 CADN/B, Martel to MAE, 20 April 1934, vol. 473.

“All political activity today, however, must be carried out discreetly if we wish to avoid reactivating the opposition, which is at present crumbling. Therefore I am trying to concentrate the public’s attention on economic projects”.5

7This was the heart of the High Commissioner’s strategy throughout 1934-35 in Syria.

8De Martel’s instructions from Paris remained the same: hold the country; protect the pipe-line; establish and organise some sort of parliament in Damascus that would ratify a treaty, à la française. The problem was how to produce such a parliament. The nationalists in the Chamber had scuppered M. Ponsot’s plans in August 1928 and now de Martel’s gameplan had received a similar fate. At the end of 1933, the High Commissioner and his team came up with what they thought was the answer - administrative decentralisation. Throughout 1934 and 1935, while de Martel publicly concentrated on economic projects, some of his senior officials spent most of their time secretly drafting a new political blueprint for Syria. Based on a re-division of Syria into 6 or 8 sanjaks, including the Alawite and Druze regions, it involved bypassing the nationalist opposition, creating an alternative (partially nominated) parliament and establishing a modified constitution. In some ways the scheme followed a familiar pattern. Since 1920, whenever it had suited French purposes, Syria had been subjected to a series of political and administrative permutations. It had happened in 1920, in 1922 and 1924. Now, a decade later, the French thought they could do it again.

  • 6 See CADN/B, “Note”, 2 September 1935, vol. 471, which describes in detail the meeting in Paris (2/ (...)

9De Martel’s proposals entailed administrative autonomy for each sanjak, as in the existing sanjak of Alexandretta, whose affairs would be managed by elected councils, together with a representative of the central government. A government (nominated by the Head of State and responsible to him alone), assisted by a Central Council, would manage the affairs of state. The Central Council’s powers would be limited, notably on the question of financial expenditure. Finally, to avoid the drawbacks associated with general elections, the Central Council would be composed of members delegated from the sanjak councils, mandated for either a year or for each session. The whole project, of course, would be presented to the public as a purely administrative reform, entirely devoid of any political implications.6

  • 7 See MAE/SL, vol. 491, p.210-313 (undated); MAE/SL, “Political evolution in Syria”, Martel, Septemb (...)

10As the whole scheme would be carried out in stages, perhaps over a 3-year period, there would be no need for the French to introduce a detailed blueprint, as M. Ponsot had done in May 1930. No such target would be offered the nationalists. Instead, the new constitution would emerge during the final stage of the project. After the initial process of decentralisation, at the sanjak level, delegates from the sanjak councils would be convoked to help the government study a particular issue. This experience would be renewed a number of times. The final stage would be the promulgation of a text defining the organisation as a whole i.e., a new constitution, which would be submitted for ratification to the Central Council. Only then would the seemingly intractable question of the re-attachment of Latakia and the Jabal Druze be introduced, the adoption of the new constitution being a condition of that re-attachment. In other words, the French would inform the Central Council: “You sign this document - in return, we will accept the political integration of Latakia and the Jabal Druze into Syria”.7

  • 8 “The re-establishment of the 1923 constitution in Egypt obliges us for the moment to abandon the i (...)

11In November 1935, some details of the project leaked out and articles appeared in the Damascus press, warning that the French were planning to establish non-elected sanjak councils and to re-divide Syria under the guise of administrative reform. De Martel publicly accused Syrian journalists of orchestrating a campaign of lies about French intentions. In this affair, however, it was the French authorities who attempted to bury the truth.8 De Martel’s administrative reforms were officially published in Damascus and Beirut on 20 January 1936, but at that very moment other events took over - serious disturbances erupted in Damascus, a General Strike started and de Martel was forced to put his carefully prepared reform gameplan “on hold”.

12The High Commissioner’s authoritarian methods during 1934 and 1935 had encouraged an increasingly frustrated National Bloc - a collection of weak and autonomous groups of nationalists, with no arms and little finance - to draw closer together. It was de Martel’s arrest of Fakhri al-Barudi (a militant nationalist deputy) and his closure of the National Bloc offices (“centres of revolution”) in Damascus and Aleppo on 18 January 1936 which precipitated the disturbances leading to the General Strike. Perhaps more than anything else, the French had underestimated the potential of a rising generation of more educated and radicalised youth to provoke significant and prolonged unrest.

13As is well documented, de Martel attempted to ride out the storm with a series of familiar measures: the imposition of martial law and the exile of key nationalist leaders. But the spectre of a potential repetition of 1925-6 and of recent events in Egypt, combined with a weak, centrist and stop-gap government in Paris led him to change tack and reopen talks with nationalist leaders, which led to the 1 March agreement and - after many twists and turns - a Franco-Syrian agreement finally emerged on 9 September 1936. Victory (for the Syrians) of a kind had been won, but it was a limited victory, a conditional independence. Although the French military never swallowed the treaty, the French government had ample reason to be pleased: the Republic of Lebanon had been contractually safeguarded and essential French interests in Syria had been consolidated.

14On the surface, French mandatory policy during this period sometimes appeared to be hesitant and reactive. It is certainly true that on some occasions the French did not know exactly what to do next - especially if their plans had just been thwarted. But appearances are deceptive. In large measure, French hesitation was part of a subtle gameplan to wear down, undermine and divide the nationalists. Apart from those on the far left, most observers, such as French and British M.Ps, journalists and writers (including Longrigg) seem to have been generally convinced of the authenticity of the liberal-sounding, ambiguous signals the French skilfully sent out through the press and through declarations in the French Chamber and in Geneva during the 1920s and 1930s. Such declarations about, for instance, “the emancipation of territories” were all part of the imperial game, played out on a local and international stage; a game played with equal vigour by Britain in its own style, but with similar intentions.

  • 9 See Peter Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, 1927-1936, Ithaca Press, Reading, 1998.

15The administrative reform scheme, however, reveals the deeper reality of French motives and priorities, which up until at least 1939, were quite precise: hold the country and protect the pipe-line. Everything else was secondary. In 1935, French policy-makers in Paris and Damascus still firmly believed that they could and should organise Syria and Lebanon according to their own political, strategic and imperial concerns: the “emancipation of Syria and Lebanon”, as required by the League of Nations, would remain in the realm of rhetoric. That is the heart of the matter. There was occasionally some dissent between the almost immovable French military and some slightly more pragmatic Quai d’Orsay officials, as vividly revealed during the 1936 treaty negotiations. Nevertheless, such dissent highlights rather than undermines my thesis9 that during this period (1927-1936) French fundamental intentions in Syria remained unambiguous: namely, to consolidate French political, military, economic and cultural interests.


1 See Article I of the Mandate Act, League of Nations Official Journal, August 1922, p. 1013.

2 Ministère des Affaires Etrangères (Paris), Série Syrie-Liban (MAE/SL), Martel to MAE, 21 November 1933, vol. 487, p.75.

3 Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, fonds Beyrouth (CADN/B), Decree No. 169L8\R, 21 November 1933, vol. 472 (not paginated).

4 Syrian Prime Minister 1928-1932.

5 CADN/B, Martel to MAE, 20 April 1934, vol. 473.

6 See CADN/B, “Note”, 2 September 1935, vol. 471, which describes in detail the meeting in Paris (2/9/35) between the High Commissioner and Shaykh Taj al-Din, where the administrative reform project was discussed. The 103-page text of the project is in MAE/SL, vol. 491, p. 210-313.

7 See MAE/SL, vol. 491, p.210-313 (undated); MAE/SL, “Political evolution in Syria”, Martel, September 1934, vol. 489, p. 80-83.

8 “The re-establishment of the 1923 constitution in Egypt obliges us for the moment to abandon the idea of superimposing a political organism, drawn from the Muhafazat councils, provided for by my recent administrative reform... However, in thus maintaining this first stage of administrative reform, we keep open the possibility that if the parliament fails, we can produce a new representative system from these Muhafazat councils...” CADN/B, Martel to MAE, 1 March 1936, vol. 475.

9 See Peter Shambrook, French Imperialism in Syria, 1927-1936, Ithaca Press, Reading, 1998.


The Chorister School, Durham, UK

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