The Consul at Beirut (Steger) to the Secretary of State

No. 887

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to this standpoint, the High Commissioner feels that, the necessity having arisen, this voluntary concession may be withdrawn at will.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.

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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.

Respectfully yours,

C. T. Steger

The French High Commissioner (De Martel) to the American Consul at Beirut (Steger)

No. 4050

Mr. Consul: In your note of January 25th, last, you were kind enough to set forth certain views regarding Decree No. 292/LR of December 20, 1934, regulating customs immunities on importations made by religious communities, evangelical missions, educational institutions and charitable societies. You called attention to the conversations preliminary to the signing, on April 4, 1924, of a convention between the United States and France relative to the rights of the two Governments and their nationals in Syria and the Lebanon, particularly to a letter by which M. Poincaré, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, assured, on November 2, 1923, the American Government that its nationals would enjoy all privileges granted to those of any other country. Among those privileges were certain assurances given to the Italian Government in an agreement dated September 29, 1923, of which you quoted the main points.

The interpretation of these points having given rise to an exchange of correspondence, you attached to your letter a copy of a note, dated March 10, 1931, by which the Minister of Foreign Affairs informed the [Page 465]American Embassy at Paris that, in order to comply with his expressed desire, exemption of customs duties would be granted on importations made by American institutions, without setting an annual quota, and with the sole reservation of proof as to their destination and use.

You maintained that, under these circumstances, American institutions should be exempt from the provisions of Decree No. 292/LR.

In the course of a conversation at the High Commission the reasons for which the latter had been obliged to issue the decree in question were explained to you.

You then expressed the desire to have a written confirmation hereof. This note serves that purpose.

It behooves us first of all to recall that the immunities enjoyed by educational, philanthropic and religious institutions in the States under French Mandate date back to the Ottoman Empire. Under the terms of the Mandate, France had to safeguard the privileges formerly enjoyed by these institutions.

However, the Ottoman customs regulations of 1910 did not provide for illimited franchise privileges; the kinds of articles to be imported free of duty were determined, and their value could not exceed a certain maximum.

By Decree No. 1734 dated December 22, 1922,10 the High Commission set forth the regulations applicable in this connection in the States under French Mandate. As during the Ottoman régime, the articles to be admitted free of duty were set forth in general terms, and their value limited.

By the agreement of September 29, 1923, the French Government granted to Italy “customs franchise” for its institutions in the Levant. One could reasonably argue the point whether it was a question of illimited franchise or franchise depending on the regulations then in force. But a controversy on this point would have no practical bearing, since the mandatory power was seeking to facilitate the functioning of foreign institutions by interpreting the franchise regulations in a very liberal spirit. It is in this spirit that, according to the very terms of the letter of March 10, 1931, France announced to the American Embassy at Paris that the customs administration at Beirut would receive instructions designed to satisfy the desire expressed by the Embassy.

But, however desirous the mandatory power may be of generosity in this regard towards foreign institutions, it must needs take into consideration certain reactions of public opinion. It cannot have escaped your Consulate General that this opinion has arisen more and more violently against the régime of exemptions.

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The Lebanese Chamber, having of its own accord taken cognizance of this problem, sent to the High Commission a committee which exposed its grievances, among which figured a demand for restriction of the privileges, and there is no doubt that the complaints emanating from those various circles are not devoid of foundation since, under cover of immunities, certain local institutions have not hesitated to abuse these privileges.

But to withdraw immunities from local institutions alone would amount to establishing in favor of foreigners a privilege which the Ottoman régime itself had not reserved to them. This innovation would be inconceivable in the face of existing opinion. The High Commission found itself under the obligation of having recourse to conciliatory measures and of establishing a regulation capable of removing all cause for legitimate complaints, at the same time safeguarding, in the largest possible measure, the interests of foreign institutions.

The text already applied by the Palestinian authorities was inspired by the same thought.

The question which you brought up is therefore not a problem of right or interpretation of text; it has above all a character of political expediency (un caractère d’opportunité politique).

A régime of illimited exemptions—or their limitation to foreigners alone—is impossible in the face of opinion. In the presence of a problem which should be solved, American and French interests are eminently solidary, and I do not doubt that with the help of these explanations the American Government will admit that Decree No. 292/LR constitutes a reasonable and carefully studied regulation, designed to safeguard the proper functioning of foreign institutions by placing the régime of exemptions above criticism.

Please accept [etc.]

D. De Martel
  1. See footnote 2, p. 460.
  2. Recueil des Actes Adminiatratifs du Haut-Commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban, année 1922, vol. iii, p. 473.