France flexes its diplomatic muscles
French President Emmanuel Macron landed in Beirut late Monday for his second visit to Lebanon since the August 4 port blast that killed at least 190 people. The Lebanese people are generally eager for France’s help in a country devoid of functional leadership. In addition to heading global aid efforts, France seeks the opportunity to highlight its diplomatic prowess for the international community.
Lebanese politicians are planning to implement changes to improve the country’s political structure. The purpose of Macron’s visit is to oversee those plans. The goal is to achieve a political solution that would include the formation of a functional government headed by a new prime minister. The restructured regime, it is hoped, would start instituting sweeping changes and hold an election within the next 12 months. In return, Beirut would receive much-needed financial assistance from abroad.
Demonstrators have besieged Lebanon for months, with protestors demanding an end to government corruption and a nonsectarian government.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun expressed his support for these demands on August 30, saying: “There is a need to develop, modify and change the system. … Lebanon’s youth are calling for change.”
One of the difficulties, however, in reforming Lebanon’s government was evidenced that same day. Three-quarters of the country’s lawmakers announced that they were supporting Mustapha Adib, Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany for the past seven years, to form the next government. Adib does not have the support of protestors, who view him as part of the old, problematic system of governing.
Lebanon’s parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, on Monday called for a change to the country’s confessional political system in the aftermath of the explosion at Beirut’s port, which he blamed on official negligence and corruption.
“The most dangerous thing that the port disaster revealed … is the total collapse of the political and economic system’s structure,” Berri said, shortly after the president designated Adib as the new prime minister.
“Therefore, there must be a change to this confessional system, which is the cause of all ills.”
Many in Lebanon believe that French intervention is sorely needed.
Lynn Zovighian, managing director of The Zovighian Partnership, a social investment platform that promotes socio-economic advancement in the Middle East, told The Media Line: “Many of the hardworking Lebanese on the ground are putting a lot of weight on this important visit, which is viewed as an important tipping point in terms of political accountability and injecting much-needed oxygen into the capacities and energy of citizen-led efforts on the ground.”
“We, the people, must begin to incubate and build the public institutions that President Macron and every other donor government will need as their counterparts to effectively support Lebanon with the needed agility and self-determination,” she added.
It is interesting to see that Macron’s visit is generally viewed favorably by Lebanese people who turned to him rather than to their own political leaders. We saw powerful scenes of support for President Macron from people in the streets, which reveals how unpopular Lebanese leaders are
Hosam Arar, a political activist based in Beirut, agreed: “I am happy but also cautious about this visit, especially because of Hizbullah.”
Macron met Haji Muhammad Raad, a Hizbullah official in the Lebanese Parliament, on his initial visit to Lebanon after the blast. Hizbullah has indicated a willingness to listen to the French.
Dr. Raphaël Gourrada, a MENA analyst who specializes in Lebanese issues, says that the Lebanese particularly welcome the French presence in light of the Lebanese government’s lack of leadership.
“It is interesting to see that Macron’s visit is generally viewed favorably by Lebanese people who turned to him rather than to their own political leaders. We saw powerful scenes of support for President Macron from people in the streets, which reveals how unpopular Lebanese leaders are,” he told The Media Line.
While many countries sent their foreign ministers to visit Beirut after the blast, France has sent its highest-ranking official more than once.
One of the reasons for this is that France gets an opportunity to shine diplomatically on the world stage.
“The Lebanese people are not able to solve the problem by themselves. You have … corruption, which is killing the [country]. You have [the presence of] Hizbullah, which makes the banking system collapse because it is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and thus, faces many sanctions. … All that must be solved and they need a mediator to try to issue a new proposal for a new republic without religious [factionalism],” Nathalie Goulet, senator from Normandy in the French Parliament, told The Media Line.
France was also the colonizing power, and Macron’s return to Beirut marks the 100-year anniversary of French rule over the country.
However, Goulet says this is not the reason why the French play a key role in these negotiations.
“It’s not colonialism,” she said. Rather, “it’s a major area of interest for France.”
Arar says that France has an interest in curbing Turkey’s power in the region.
“Macron tries to curtail the Turkish role in the region and renew the previous French role in Lebanon. … He tries to do so by playing a role in establishing the government and by developing a reform plan for the Lebanese Republic,” he said.
According to Arar, there is another motivation behind Macron’s visit – personal political gain.
“After his party lost in the municipal elections, Macron’s visit raised his popularity in the latest polls. On the partisan and popular level, he benefited from it,” Arar said.
It surely is an edgy situation where he needs to walk with precaution. If he manages correctly, … Lebanon will stop its descent into hell. France will regain its geopolitical strength in the area and send messages to other major players like Iran and Russia that we are a force to be reckoned with
Dr. Sania El Kadi, a diplomat and university professor, contends that both Lebanon and France can benefit from France’s guidance.
“It surely is an edgy situation where he needs to walk with precaution. If he manages correctly, … Lebanon will stop its descent into hell. France will regain its geopolitical strength in the area and send messages to other major players like Iran and Russia that we are a force to be reckoned with,” she told The Media Line.
Still, the French president has a tough road ahead to achieve his plan of creating a functional government.
“Macron engaged France’s reputation and his country’s word by promising a new political pact to the Lebanese people. He [initially] said [at the beginning of the month that] he would come on September 1 with results from Lebanese politicians and with a new pact,” analyst Gourrada said. “One month later, nothing has changed, so now comes the tricky part where he will have to deliver what he promised.”
Mohammad Al-Kassim contributed to this report.