The French factor in Lebanon

Bassem Aly , Thursday 6 May 2021

France will soon be making a new move to push the talks on forming a new coalition government in Lebanon forward


Governments around the world are alarmed by the political deadlock in Lebanon that is hindering the formation of a new coalition government after the major explosions that took place at the Beirut port last year and the worsening social and economic conditions in the country. The situation has reached the stage at which one of them has said it will interfere in a bid to solve the crisis.

France will be sending its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Lebanon on 5 May in order to meet with senior officials one day later, according to sources who spoke to Reuters, although France did not officially confirm the news.  

Le Drian reportedly said he wants to meet two allies of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah who play a major role in Lebanese politics, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Shia Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

He has also requested a meeting with Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s ex-foreign minister and president of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the country’s largest Christian political force.

Bassil has been facing sanctions from the US Department of the Treasury since November 2020 on suspicion of “appointing friends to positions and purchasing other forms of influence within Lebanese political circles” and “approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies.”

France has played a major role in seeking to find common ground between Lebanon’s political leaders since the devastating port blasts in Beirut in August 2020. Last week, it imposed sanctions on Lebanese officials, involving restrictions on their arrival on French territory.

“On a national basis, we have started to implement restrictive measures in terms of access to French territory against personalities involved in the current political blockage or involved in corruption,” Le Drian said at a press conference alongside his Maltese counterpart.

“We reserve the right to adopt additional measures against all those who hinder the way out of the crisis and we will do so in coordination with our international partners,” he added.

But Le Drian did not specify the names of the Lebanese officials who are to be sanctioned by France. Many Lebanese politicians have property, bank accounts and investments in Europe. They are also culturally connected to Europe, as they regularly enroll their sons and daughters in European schools and universities.

France has recently attempted to arrange similar moves with the EU that would include both travel bans and the freezing of the assets of Lebanese politicians until they agree on a new government.

“Concrete proposals are being developed against the very people who have abandoned the general interest in favour of their personal interests,” Le Drian said in April. “If certain political actors don’t assume their responsibilities, we won’t hesitate to assume ours.”

Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri and Aoun, a Hizbullah ally, have recently started a war of words, with each side blaming the other for the unfinished business of forming a new governing coalition.

The problem is reportedly related to who will get the majority of ministerial seats in the new government. In late December, Al-Hariri submitted a government line-up to Aoun. One week later, his office urged Aoun to “cooperate” and disregard party affiliations.

Aoun’s office responded by opposing Al-Hariri’s “going it alone in naming ministers, particularly Christians, without agreement from the president.”

Accusing Al-Hariri of submitting a line-up different from the one discussed, Aoun’s office added that “the president never proposed the names of party candidates to be ministers and did not present the prime minister-designate with a list of names.” On 1 February, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al-Rai described the Aoun-Al-Hariri clash as “sad and shameful,” warning that if “ties between them do not improve, there will be no government.”

The crisis has been going on since last October when Al-Hariri was appointed as prime minister-designate to replace Hassan Diab, the head of government who resigned after the explosions.

The port blasts led to the deaths of 200 people and the injury of 6,000. About 300,000 people lost their homes, and the Lebanese government is incapable of meeting its financial commitments or rebuilding the destroyed areas.

It needs an estimated $10 to $15 billion to carry out reconstruction. But a donors conference arranged by French President Emmanuel Macron collected only 253 million Euros ($298 million) in humanitarian aid.

Most world leaders are reluctant to send money to Lebanon until a new government is in place. This has resulted in a huge economic crisis that, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, resulted in poverty-related protests and an enormous drop in the exchange rate.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “there is no escape from forming a new government,” though “conditions are much more difficult than in previous years.”

“At stake is the ability to negotiate an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Lebanon. At the same time, the new government will need to regain public support and international confidence. But the political parties are seeking to cover up any wrongdoing, after being indicted for corruption and held responsible for the Beirut blasts,” Salamey said.

“Others want to ensure endorsements for a 2022 presidential bid as a condition for a new government’s formation. The establishment continues to play the power-sharing game, though this time around the gains are a mere façade.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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