The failure of the French to complete the Panama Canal can’t be understood apart from the French triumph of the Suez Canal.
De Lesseps became “The Hero of France” with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Known after 1869 as “The Great Engineer,” he was no such thing. He had no technical background, no experience in finance. His skills as an administrator were modest. Routine of any kind bored him quickly.
He grew up in a family of diplomats and added to the cultural background of diplomacy his extraordinary social skills and ability to persuade others by the force of his personality, regardless of actual facts.
De Lesseps’ interest in building the Suez Canal came from a man with similar charisma, Prosper Enfantin, “Le Pere” of the Saint-Simonians, a group of Frenchmen, many of them engineers, whose philosophy taught that the world would be saved from poverty and war by public works, building a network of highways and railroads—and two great canals, one through the Isthmus of Suez and the second through the Isthmus of Panama. Prosper Enfantin was a religious zealot but also a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. He sailed for Egypt after serving a prison term for advocating free love, and it was De Lesseps who persuaded the ruling viceroy of Egypt not to throw him out of the country.
Enfantin and his engineers worked on a canal in Egypt, which they had rightly judged an easier task than Panama, for four years without accomplishing much but losing half their number to cholera. However, as a friend of DeLesseps, he provided studies from his files, perhaps hoping to find a partner for his dream.
In November, 1854, De Lesseps, who was currently unemployed and out of favor in France because of the political situation there, learned that the new Viceroy of Egypt was Mohammed Said with whom he had established friendship some years before. Said invited De Lesseps to accompany him on maneuvers in the Western Desert; there were not military training exercises as we think of them, but, for the Viceroy and his guests, a luxurious entertainment.
They were joined by Bedouin tribesmen and a band. It was the sort of show De Lesseps adored. He traveled in style—his own private tent, mahogany furniture, quilted silk bedding, ice for his drinking water.
Said expressed a singular desire to commence his regime with some great enterprise. Did Ferdinand have any ideas? But de Lesseps said nothing of the canal; he was waiting for a sign.
[The next morning] before breakfast, but with everyone watching, he mounted his horse and went sailing over a high wall, a bit of imprudence he calls it in the journal, but one “which afterward caused the Viceroy’s entourage to give the necessary approval to my scheme.”
By the end of the day Said had asked a few questions and the deal was settled.
Fifteen years later the Suez Canal opened.