Almost a year after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and launched a French initiative to relieve his country’s former colony of its myriad of crises, nothing has been achieved. Food prices continue to skyrocket, fuel lines stretch for miles, and the Lebanese military – which not only monitors some of the world’s most sensitive borders, but also maintains internal peace. in a deeply divided society – sounded the alarm that this on the verge of disintegration, due to the financial pressure on the soldiers.
Iranian interference and clashes with the United States over how to handle Hezbollah – an armed militia and a political party – contributed to the untimely demise of the French initiative. But the central problem was that the success of the French plan rested on the same political class which was, in the first place, blamed for the catastrophes which were unfolding in the country. Their refusal to initiate reforms is undoubtedly the main reason for the collapse of the French plan. France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of simply begging them to do the right thing was utterly naive and ultimately destructive.
Almost a year after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and launched a French initiative to relieve his country’s former colony of its myriad of crises, nothing has been achieved. Food prices continue to skyrocket, fuel lines stretch for miles and the Lebanese military – which not only monitors some of the world’s most sensitive borders, but also maintains internal peace. in a deeply divided society – sounded the alarm that it could be on the verge of disintegration, due to the financial pressure on the soldiers.
Iranian interference and clashes with the United States over how to handle Hezbollah – an armed militia and a political party – contributed to the premature demise of the French initiative. But the central problem was that the success of the French plan rested on the same political class which was, in the first place, blamed for the catastrophes which were unfolding in the country. Their refusal to initiate reforms is undoubtedly the main reason for the collapse of the French plan. France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of simply begging them to do the right thing was utterly naive and ultimately destructive.
At first there was hope. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit the country in August 2020 after being devastated by a massive explosion in the port of Beirut, which killed 200 people, injured thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless. overnight. As he inspected Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, two of the worst affected Lebanese neighborhoods near the port, he was surrounded by the Lebanese and overwhelmed by their grief. Many waded through the cordon and walked through the debris to cry on his shoulder while some just wanted a hug or hold his hand at a time when their own politicians were in hiding, avoiding public anger. His visit gave the Lebanese hope that France would come to their aid and put an end to their troubles.
Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael are Christian-dominated neighborhoods lined with pubs, cafes, and heritage buildings, where many see themselves as culturally aligned with France. Others, on the outside, have surely berated Macron as a new age colonialist. Until 1943, Lebanon was under French mandate and the French defended Maronite Christians, not Muslims. Since the end of the civil war in Lebanon, France has above all played the role of Western intermediary between Lebanon and the international community to raise funds for the economic recovery of Lebanon.
However, the protest movement that erupted in Lebanon in October 2019 warned the international community against injecting money that would only bail out their politicians. They demanded political and economic reforms. When Macron returned for his second visit a month later in September 2020, he summoned politicians and presented France’s roadmap for international aid, but subordinated it to reforms. “No blank checks,” Macron said. The French roadmap therefore called for the formation of a new technocratic government within 15 days, early elections and reforms at least in the electricity sector, which swallowed up between 1.6 and 2 billion dollars. of public funds per year but failed to provide citizens with adequate food.
Forget about accountability mechanisms and early elections. Lebanese politicians even halted the formation of an interim government, which was urgently needed to discuss a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. They fought for ministerial posts, to be handed over to their proxies, so they could continue to take the lead outside government.
Lebanese prime minister at the time, Hassan Diab, resigned a week after the explosion, but he is still the acting prime minister. Saad Hariri was appointed prime minister in October last year, but was prevented from forming a government. First, Hariri had to cede to Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal movement, and cede the all-important finance ministry to a Shiite. But in recent months, Hariri visited the Baabda presidential palace on Mount Lebanon, the residence of the country’s president, to get his signature on the composition of the cabinet, a formality required by the constitution. Behind the delaying tactics of Lebanese President Michel Aoun hides the pressure of his son-in-law and former Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gebran Bassil, who wants a blocking veto in the cabinet and insists that his acolytes be assigned a third plus one position within the cabinet.
Bassil was one of the most despised politicians during the Lebanese protests and was sanctioned by the United States under the Magnitsky Law, designed to punish corruption. Lebanese analysts say Bassil has nothing to lose by ignoring the French and is desperate to be politically rehabilitated. He wants to replace an aging Aoun as president, and his political survival is clearly more important to him than that of his country, several analysts and angry Lebanese citizens have said.
Even political colleagues find it hard to swallow such an indulgence.
Yassine Jaber, a Lebanese parliamentarian, said the president’s love for his heir was costing the country dearly. “The president is adamant that he wants his son-in-law to play a major role in the government,” Jaber said. “No sane prime minister would accept a government where one party has blocking power. This issue is going round and round and all mediations have failed.
Nizar Ghanem, director of research and co-founder of a think tank called Triangle Consulting, said it’s ironic that the community that the French have historically protected and massively invaded is the one that sabotages his initiative. “The French could have used their links with the Maronite Patriarch to put pressure on Maronite President Aoun, but they did not,” Ghanem said. “Instead, the French intervention just gave the political elite time to kill the momentum gained by the protest movement after the explosion. Now people are still suffering and the French want to help, so they are going to throw money at the problem and that money will float the same politicians. We are in a vicious circle. “
It’s a battle of nerves between Lebanese and French politicians, the former determined to wait until conditions are so dire that the West feels morally obligated to provide aid.
Earlier this month, Macron said he was trying to muster international aid for basic services for the Lebanese and appealed to his partners to secure funds on behalf of the Lebanese military. “What should we do? Should we let people die because their own politicians don’t care?” asked a French diplomatic source who requested anonymity, asked rhetorically, appearing troubled by the inaction of the political class. “We cannot let the people bear the full cost of crises. We cannot do that. He added that although the reflection on the basic services that the French could ask the international community to pay is still in the preliminary stages, France has already helped the army with food rations, medicines and some equipment necessary for the maintaining security. The standard of living of the nearly 80,000 Lebanese soldiers has fallen along with the country’s currency, their incomes falling from $ 800 to less than $ 100 per month.
The diplomat admitted that France’s policy had limits and that Paris could not do everything. He placed the responsibility for the change of government on the Lebanese people. “The Lebanese would like us to solve all their problems, but they must also defend themselves,” said the diplomat.
Ghanem admitted that if civil society activists and independent political candidates came to an agreement, France would have a local ally, but the movement is leaderless and divided. “France has no horse to support. It’s also a problem, ”Ghanem said.
Makram Rabah, professor of history at the American University of Beirut, said Bassil was encouraged by Hezbollah, his ally, not to give in. He said Lebanon was Iran’s bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations to resume the nuclear deal with the United States, and if Hezbollah wanted a government to be formed, Bassil could not. not resist. “Hezbollah doesn’t want a government until the Vienna talks are clear,” Makram said.
Other Lebanese analysts have alleged that France is soft on Hezbollah and allows Iran’s expansionism to protect its business interests. They said former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact had compromised billions of dollars in auto and aircraft parts deals France had signed with Iran. The French diplomatic source mocked the accusations, but admitted that the United States’ parallel plan to pursue its own agenda through sanctions had undermined their efforts.
Two months ago, France finally imposed its own sanctions on some Lebanese who were either involved in corruption or had blocked government formation. But he kept the names hidden. The penalties are very light – just a ban on travel to France. “Why don’t the sanctions mention the names of those against whom they oppose? Asked Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst. “Are the French trying to punish the political elites or do they continue to engage them? Half measures are not measures. Most Lebanese experts and activists believe that in the absence of severe sanctions against the political class, nothing will change. France is currently discussing a sanctions regime with the European Union in Brussels.