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I looked up this phrase recently, and found an entry on Wiktionnaire listing pays du cèdre as a variant of Liban (Lebanon). I'm guessing that Lebanon is known for its cedar trees. But I also assume there's more to it.

How did this phrase come to be a name for Lebanon?

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The ancient world knew Lebanon as a region rich in high-quality cedar. Vestiges of that legacy can be traced back very far.

For French, the closest reference to hand is probably its frequent reference in the Bible.

The two concepts have been explicitly linked in French since at least the Revolution.

However, it appears that the exact collocation pays du cèdre is only a few decades old in Ngram data.

I like qoba's theory below about pays du cèdre coming into popular use during the Lebanese civil war in order to vary journalistic style.

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    Looking at the ngram data, my hypothesis would be that people started talking about Lebanon a lot more during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), and with writers' penchant for avoiding repetitions, they started using the phrase as a synonym purely for stylistic reasons – qoba Nov 21 '17 at 15:42
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    Dans un des liens provenant du ngram j'ai aussi vu une référence au Pérou comme étant le pays du cèdre. Un autre truc que j'ai remarqué c'est que dans un article en français j'ai vu le mot Cèdre avec une majuscule initiale... Merci ! – user3177 Nov 22 '17 at 23:56
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There is a cedar on the country flag.

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