Argument

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Lebanon’s Failure Is Partly Macron’s Fault

France developed a plan to save its former colony. It went wrong from the start.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
French President Emmanuel Macron plants a tree.
French President Emmanuel Macron plants a cedar tree alongside members of the nonprofit Jouzour Loubnan during a ceremony marking Lebanon’s centenary in Jaj Cedars Forest Natural Reserve, northeast of Beirut, on Sept. 1, 2020. GONZALO FUENTES/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Nearly a year after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and launched a French initiative to relieve his country’s former colony of its myriad crises, nothing has been achieved. Food prices continue to skyrocket, queues for fuel stretch for miles, and the Lebanese army—which not only guards some of the most sensitive borders in the world but also keeps internal peace in a deeply divided society—has rung alarm bells that it might be on the verge of disintegrating, owing to financial pressure on soldiers.

Iran’s meddling and clashes with the United States over how to handle Hezbollah—an armed militia and a political party—contributed to the French initiative’s early demise. But the central problem was that the French plan’s success rested on the same political class that was, in the first place, accused of the catastrophes unfolding in the country. Their refusal to usher in reforms is undoubtedly the biggest reason the French plan collapsed. France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of merely plead with them to do the right thing was utterly naïve—and ultimately destructive.

In the beginning, there was hope. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit the country in August 2020 after it was left devastated by a massive explosion at the Beirut port, which killed 200 people, injured thousands of people, and turned hundreds of thousands of people 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 swamped with their grief. Many waded through the security cordon and walked through the debris to cry on his shoulder while some just wanted a hug or to hold his hand at a time their own politicians were in hiding, evading public anger. His visit raised hopes among the Lebanese that France would come to their aid and end their troubles.

Nearly a year after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and launched a French initiative to relieve his country’s former colony of its myriad crises, nothing has been achieved. Food prices continue to skyrocket, queues for fuel stretch for miles, and the Lebanese army—which not only guards some of the most sensitive borders in the world but also keeps internal peace in a deeply divided society—has rung alarm bells that it might be on the verge of disintegrating, owing to financial pressure on soldiers.

Iran’s meddling and clashes with the United States over how to handle Hezbollah—an armed militia and a political party—contributed to the French initiative’s early demise. But the central problem was that the French plan’s success rested on the same political class that was, in the first place, accused of the catastrophes unfolding in the country. Their refusal to usher in reforms is undoubtedly the biggest reason the French plan collapsed. France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of merely plead with them to do the right thing was utterly naïve—and ultimately destructive.

In the beginning, there was hope. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit the country in August 2020 after it was left devastated by a massive explosion at the Beirut port, which killed 200 people, injured thousands of people, and turned hundreds of thousands of people 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 swamped with their grief. Many waded through the security cordon and walked through the debris to cry on his shoulder while some just wanted a hug or to hold his hand at a time their own politicians were in hiding, evading public anger. His visit raised hopes among the Lebanese that France would come to their aid and end 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, outside, surely chastised Macron as a new age colonialist. Until 1943, Lebanon was under the French mandate, and the French advocated for the Maronite Christians, not the Muslims. Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war, France has mainly played the role of a Western intermediary between Lebanon and the international community to raise funds for Lebanon’s economic revival.

However, the protest movement that erupted in Lebanon in October 2019 warned the international community against pumping in money that merely bailed out their politicians. They demanded political and economic reforms. As Macron returned for his second visit a month later in September 2020, he summoned the politicians and laid out the French road map to avail international aid—but made it conditional on reforms. “No blank checks,” Macron said. The French road map hence called for the formation of a new technocratic government within 15 days, an early election, and reforms at least in the electricity sector, which had been guzzling $1.6 billion to $2 billion of public funds yearly yet was failing to provide people with an adequate power supply.

Forget accountability mechanisms and early elections. Lebanese politicians halted even the formation of an interim government, which was urgently needed to discuss a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund. They have been wrangling over cabinet posts, to be given to their proxies, so they can continue to call the shots from outside the government.

Then-Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned a week after the blast, but he is still the caretaker prime minister. Saad Hariri was designated to take over as prime minister in October last year, but he has been blocked from forming a government. First, Hariri had to give in to Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, and concede the all-important finance ministry to a Shiite. But over the last few months, Hariri is running to Baabda Presidential Palace on Mount Lebanon, the residence of the country’s president, to get his signature on the cabinet lineup—a formality required by the constitution. Behind Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s delaying tactics is pressure from his son-in-law and former Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, who wants a blocking veto in the cabinet and is insisting his acolytes be given one-third plus one post in the cabinet.

Bassil was one of the most despised politicians during the Lebanese protests and was sanctioned by the United States under the Magnitsky Act—designed to punish corruption. Lebanese analysts say Bassil has nothing to lose by ignoring the French and is desperate to be rehabilitated politically. He wishes to replace an aging Aoun as president, and his political survival is clearly more important to him than that of his country’s, said several angry Lebanese analysts and citizens.

Even fellow politicians are finding it hard to swallow such 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 prime minister in his right mind would agree to a government where one party has a blocking power. This issue has been going round and round in circles, and all mediation has failed.”

Nizar Ghanem, director of research and co-founder of a think tank called Triangle Consulting, said it is ironic the community the French have historically protected and have massive inroads in is the one sabotaging its initiative. “The French could have used their connections with the Maronite patriarch to deploy pressure on the Maronite President Aoun, but they didn’t,” Ghanem said. “Instead, French intervention just bought the political elite time to kill the momentum gained by the protest movement after the blast. Now, the people are still suffering and the French want to help, so they will throw some money at the problem and that money will float the same politicians. We are in a vicious cycle.”

It is a battle of nerves between Lebanese and French politicians with the former determined to wait until conditions are so dire the West feels morally bound to provide help.

Earlier this month, Macron said he was trying to put together international aid for basic services for the Lebanese and appealed for funds from its partners on behalf of Lebanon’s army. “What should we do? Should we let the people die because their own politicians couldn’t care less?” a French diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity asked rhetorically, seeming flustered at the political class’s inaction. “We can’t let the people bear the entire cost of the crises. We cannot do that.” He added that although the thinking on what basic services the French could ask the international community to pay for was still in preliminary stages, France has already helped the army with food rations, medicine, and some equipment necessary to maintain security. Living standards of the nearly 80,000 Lebanese soldiers have plummeted in parallel with the country’s currency as their earnings reduced from $800 to less than $100 a month.

The diplomat conceded France’s policy had limitations and Paris could only do so much. He laid the onus of government change on the Lebanese people. “The Lebanese would like us to solve all their problems, but they must stand up for themselves too,” the diplomat said.

Ghanem admitted that had civil society activists and independent political candidates got their act together, France would have a local ally, but the movement is leaderless and divided. “France does not have a horse to back. That is also a problem,” Ghanem said.

Makram Rabah, a lecturer on history with the American University of Beirut, said Bassil is being encouraged by Hezbollah, his ally, not to give in. He said Lebanon is Iran’s bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations on the nuclear deal’s resumption with the United States, and if Hezbollah wanted a government to be formed, Bassil could not resist. “Hezbollah does not want a government until Vienna talks are not clear,” Makram said.

Other Lebanese analysts alleged France is soft on Hezbollah and allows Iran’s expansionism to protect its business interests. They said former U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact compromised billions of dollars in airplane and automobile part deals that France had signed with Iran. The French diplomatic source scoffed at the charges but admitted the United States’ parallel plan to pursue its own agenda through sanctions scuttled their efforts.

Two months ago, France finally imposed its own sanctions on some Lebanese who were either involved in corruption or had blocked the government’s formation. But it kept the names hidden. The sanctions are of the lightest kind—just a travel ban to France. “Why the sanctions don’t list the names of those they are against?” asked Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst. “Are the French trying to punish the political elite or still engaging them? Half measures are no measures.” Most Lebanese experts and activists believe in the absence of harsh sanctions against the political class, nothing will change. France is now discussing a sanctions regime with the European Union in Brussels.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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