The Consul at Beirut (Steger) to the Secretary of State
[Received June 14.]
Sir: I have the honor to refer to my despatch No. 852 of March 18, 1935,9 reporting that a decree, No. 292/LR, issued by the French High Commissioner on December 20, 1934, appears to constitute a unilateral withdrawal of rights assured, by virtue of an agreement concluded between the American and French Governments in 1923, to American educational and philanthropic institutions in the Levant States under French Mandate. As an enclosure to this despatch was transmitted a copy of a note sent, under date of January 25, 1935, to the French High Commissioner, protesting against this action.
I now have the honor to transmit a copy, with translation, of the High Commissioner’s note of May 8th, 1935, replying to the observations made in my note of January 25th.
A perusal of this note will show that it does not constitute a reply to the points raised in my communication of January 25th: passing over without comment the legal status of the matter as outlined by me, M. de Martel has merely attempted to justify his action by explaining the factors which led him to the conclusion that such action was necessary as a matter of policy.
For the information of the Department, I wish to make the following comment on several points mentioned in the present communication of the High Commission:
It is to be noted that the High Commissioner adopts the standpoint that the French Foreign Office, in accepting, in its note of March 10, 1931, the contention of the American Government, was not acknowledging the justice of the American claims, but was, “in a spirit of broad liberality,” granting a request of the American Embassy. Consequently, as a corollary to this standpoint, the High Commissioner feels that, the necessity having arisen, this voluntary concession may be withdrawn at will. It is my personal opinion that the Department will hardly be disposed to accept this viewpoint.
In the second place, it is stated that the withdrawal of privileges from the institutions in question was a necessary concession to public opinion, as represented by the demands of a committee from the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies. This statement is, to say the least, misleading. It is true that the Chamber sent a Committee to request “a restriction of privileges.” The privileges in question, however, were those enjoyed by concessionary societies, by French civilians in [Page 463]making purchases from the military cooperative stores, and in connection with duty-free importation of automobiles by officials. I have inquired of one of the members of this committee, who informs me that no mention whatsoever was made of the customs privileges accorded to educational and philanthropic institutions.
Thirdly, it is stated that certain local—i. e., Lebanese or Syrian—institutions had abused the privileges granted them, and that it was consequently necessary to withdraw these privileges from all institutions. Personally, I fail to see the logic of this statement; nor do I know of any reason why the privileges granted might not be withdrawn individually from those institutions which have abused them.
The only logical contention advanced in the note consists in the argument that the assurances given to the Italian Government provide for “customs exemption”, and that this assurance might be interpreted to contemplate a continuation—but not an extension—of the privileges guaranteed under Ottoman law, which privileges France was required, by the terms of the Mandate, to safeguard. It is true that under Ottoman legislation dating back to 1864 both the amounts and the nature of the articles to be imported duty-free were subject to limitation; and very probably the French Government did not anticipate that the assurances given to the Italian Government in the accord of September 29, 1923 should be construed as extending these privileges indefinitely.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the French Foreign Office, in its note of March 10, 1931, accepted such a construction, thus in effect incorporating this interpretation into the agreement reached between the two Governments on November 2, 1923.
In a recent conversation with M. Kieffer, Acting Chief of the Political Bureau of the French High Commission, I expressed the opinion that the note of May 8th did not constitute a reply to the question of principle involved; that the withdrawal of these privileges, without consultation with the American Government, constituted an unfortunate precedent; and that, irrespective of the validity of the reasons which led the High Commission to the conclusion that this action was desirable, such a precedent could hardly be accepted without comment by the American Government.
I then repeated my formerly expressed opinion that the Department of State is far from desiring to embarrass the Mandatory Power in the pursuit of the best interests of the States under Mandate, and that it would undoubtedly be willing to give sympathetic consideration to any request of the French Government to enter into conversations with a view to arriving at a new agreement which would safeguard the interests of all concerned.[Page 464]
Consequently I suggested that the High Commission’s note of May 8th be considered, not as a final reply to my representations, but as an expression of the desire of the High Commission that such conversations be initiated. I added that, until or unless a new agreement should be reached, the rights assured to American institutions under the accord concluded between the two Governments in 1923 should, in my opinion, be considered as existing without modification.
Mr. Kieffer, while expressing the opinion that such conversations would hardly result in a modification of the present standpoint of the French High Commission, agreed with my suggestion. Under the circumstances I am refraining from further written communications on the subject, pending instructions from the Department.
From the attitude of Mr. Kieffer I judge that the French High Commissioner, although realizing the weakness of his legal position, will be most reluctant to acknowledge himself in error, and to make an open admission of this fact by a prompt modification of the decree which he has so recently issued. Consequently it is probably advisable that further representations be made direct to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the American Embassy at Paris. A copy of this despatch is being sent to the Embassy at Paris for its information.