Syria

"The French ambassador to Syria clearly played down the revolt"

Anti-government protests in Damascus on Friday, May 7.
Anti-government protests in Damascus on Friday, May 7.

 France was one of the last European countries to officially recommend its citizens in Syria leave the country amid a bloody anti-government uprising. Our Observer in Syria, a French expatriate close to diplomatic circles, says the embassy long refused to acknowledge the extent of the brutal repression inflicted on protesters by president Bashar al-Assad’s government.  

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France was one of the last European countries to officially recommend its citizens in Syria leave the country amid a bloody anti-government uprising. Our Observer in Syria, a French expatriate close to diplomatic circles, says the embassy long refused to acknowledge the extent of the brutal repression inflicted on protesters by president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

 

Inspired by similar protests in Egypt and Tunisia, tens of thousands of Syrians have held regular anti-government protests in several major Syrian cities since early March. The government deployed security forces and, in some cases, secret militias, to crush peaceful demonstrations. Human rights groups say more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing following the crackdown on protesters.

 

According to our Observer, French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, has since the start of the uprising minimized the violence against protesters. Early April, a Franco-Syrian businessman published an opinion article on the French website Rue89, describing a meeting during which the ambassador reportedly said that the Syrian uprising was orchestrated from abroad and that media reports of the situation were untrue. 

 

In response to our Observer’s comment, Mr. Chevallier asked to publish on France 24 several clarifications on the security advice the embassy gave French citizens: read them here (in French).

“If I speak my mind about the protests, I could get arrested”

Caroline (not her real name) is a Franco-Syrian woman living in Damascus. She contacted us via an online instant messaging service due to fears that her phone line might be tapped.

 

We found out in media reports, not through the embassy, that the French ministry of foreign affairs had called on French citizens to leave Syria on May 4. Security advice to French citizens was posted on the embassy’s website just two days earlier, and it merely warned us not to go out on Fridays [the day most protests are held].

 

This advice came much later than the official recommendations issued by other western countries [the US called on its citizens to leave the country on March 31, the UK on April 20 and Germany on April 26, versus May 4 for France]. Eric Chevallier’s silence concerning recent events in the country was extremely worrying for French citizens.

 

“If France cut off its relations with Syria, it would risk losing several lucrative business deals”

 

At the start of the revolt, the ambassador clearly played down the unrest, and pretended nothing serious was going on. [French journalist Georges Malbrunot wrote on his blog that the ambassador’s statements merely reflected the official Syrian government line]. Many French citizens here were shocked, because we knew that terrifying things were occurring.

 

I believe the ambassador’s attitude was dictated by political and economic interests. I think he didn’t want to ruin the recent warming in Franco-Syrian relations [after years of frosty relations, the two countries signed a 1 billion dollar deal for the construction of two cement factories in 2008. In 2010, French Finance minister Christine Lagarde travelled to Syria to finalise several other large scale deals in the fields of energy, transportation, agriculture and tourism]. If France cuts off its ties with Syria, it would risk losing several lucrative business deals.

 

In Syria, it’s impossible to speak openly about the current situation without being immediately accused of plotting against the country’s stability. If I say out loud that the police have deliberately shot at protesters, if I publicly comment on the bloody crackdown, I will be perceived as a troublemaker, an opposition activist or a foreign spy. I know that if I speak openly, I can get arrested, even though I am half-French.”