Macron draws on ‘unique bond’ to assist reform of Beirut

Century after France created Lebanon, president intervention appears to bypass EU

French president Emmanuel Macron will return to Beirut on Monday for the second time in less than a month, to urge the country's discredited political class to form what the Élysée calls a "clean, efficient and capable government with a mission".

The visit had been planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of Lebanon by France, well before 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut port on August 4th.

That catastrophe killed at least 190, injured more than 6,500 and rendered 300,000 homeless. It has placed a whole new significance on Macron’s visit.

The French president was the first foreign leader to visit the stricken capital, two days after the blast. On his return to Paris, he organised an international videoconference for donors on August 8th that raised $250 million (€210 million) in aid. The funds were pledged on condition that no money be channelled through corrupt politicians.


“Why is France fighting for this country?” Macron asked rhetorically in a meeting with journalists on Friday evening. “Above all because we share history, friendship, affection, a unique bond with Lebanon.”

Macron called the Lebanese ideal of peaceful co-existence in a country composed entirely of religious minorities “an absolutely magnificent project”.

That misty-eyed, romantic vision is not unique to the French. "Lebanon is an ideal that needs to exist," says Ayman Hariri, a son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri. "I still believe in a country where Sunni, Shia and Christians can live together."

Power struggle

But the Sunni look to Saudi Arabia, which is allied with the US and Israel, while Maronite Catholic president Michel Aoun has linked up with the Hizbullah-Syrian-Iranian axis. The power struggle risks tearing Lebanon apart.

“If we leave Lebanon at the mercy of regional powers, it will be civil war,” Macron warned. The last Lebanese civil war, from 1975 until 1990, claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.

A well-informed Lebanese source says he fears the future holds chaos, the creation of religious “bantustans” or a return to Turkish domination. “I see my country seeping away, like water down the bath drain,” he reflects.

France and Turkey are already in conflict over the war in Libya and Turkish adventurism in the eastern Mediterranean. When Macron visited Beirut on August 6th, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the French leader of seeking "to restore colonial order". But many see Erdogan as a would-be sultan who is striving to reconstitute the Ottoman empire.

“France has convinced its European, US and a good portion of regional partners that we are what one calls ‘honest brokers’,” Macron boasted on Friday.

But Macron’s Lebanese initiative has annoyed some European diplomats, who complain that a leader who advocates a strong, united EU foreign policy rarely consults their governments, and did not include an EU representative in his August 6th delegation. The EU offered €63 million in grants at Macron’s pledging conference. Its reward? EU ambassadors to Beirut will be invited to Macron’s event in Beirut port on Tuesday.

Macron has included Mohammad Raad, who leads Hizbullah’s parliamentary group, in his consultations, making Macron the first western leader to engage in talks with the Iranian-backed political party and militia. The US, Israel and several EU countries consider Hizbullah a terrorist organisation.

The strategy may be paying off. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Sunday that his group "is open to discussion" regarding the "new political pact" offered by Macron. Calling Hizbullah "the biggest political party in Lebanon", Nasrallah promised to be "co-operative".

But France may find it difficult to shed its image as the defender of Lebanon's Maronite Catholics. Legend has it that St Louis promised the Maronites protection during the crusades. In the 16th century, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent made King Francis I protector of Christians under Ottoman rule, a duty invoked by France when it intervened in the 1860 Mountain War between Maronites and Druze.

French rule

French Jesuit and Lazarist priests educated generations of Lebanese leaders. Today, 23,000 French people live in Lebanon, and 210,000 Lebanese live in France. An estimated 40 per cent of Lebanese speak French.

A British diplomat of the period described Gen Henri Gouraud, the French high commissioner in the Levant who proclaimed the state of Grand-Liban from the steps of the Résidence des Pins 100 years ago on Tuesday, as "hot-headed, bearded, one-armed and heavy-handed".

Gouraud added the north and south of Lebanon, plus the Bekaa Valley, to the Maronites' heartland in the Mount Lebanon range, at the request of Patriarch Elias Hoyek.

Hoyek was haunted by the memory of the 1915 famine and said the Maronites needed agricultural land.

Elegies to Franco-Lebanese friendship gloss over resistance to French rule. In his proclamation speech, Gouraud alluded to the Arab nationalists his troops had defeated five weeks earlier at Maysalun Pass as “the harmful power that wanted to enslave you”.

The League of Nations gave France a mandate over Lebanon and Syria with the understanding it would grant them independence. Yet France held on to Lebanon until 1943, and granted independence only after violent street demonstrations in support of jailed pro-independence leaders. Even then, French troops did not leave until 1946.

Maronite patriarch Bechara Rai is the only religious leader Macron will meet during his two-day stay in Beirut. Macron will mark the centenary by planting a cedar tree in a forest in the Maronite mountains in the presence of school children.

The centenary is an ambiguous anniversary. Lebanon does not celebrate September 1st as an official holiday. “It’s not a day for military parades or big speeches,” admits an adviser to Macron. If one considers the past 45 years, blighted by civil war and an increasingly failed state, France arguably created a monster.

Corrupt politicians

On his previous trip to Beirut, Macron disowned Lebanon’s political class, telling crowds he did not support “the regime”. Yet his talks with those in power risk giving the impression he is starting all over again with the same corrupt politicians.

A month after the port explosion, the Élysée says it is still waiting for Aoun to begin consultations on the formation of a new government, for Shia speaker of parliament Nabih Berri to say how a parliamentary majority might be achieved, and for former prime minister Saad Hariri to say what Sunni figure he would support.

Macron “is not going to knock their heads together”, says an adviser to the French president. The visit is about “pressure and engagement . . . He is trying to obtain a result on the basis of our supporting Lebanon.”

France created Lebanon’s confessional system, which attributes leadership according to religious affiliation. His adviser said Macron “is not there to reform the national pact of 1943”.

"At no point has France, a profoundly secular country, said, hey, maybe this confessional system isn't working, and we should advise Lebanon to apply the constitution because the confessional system is destroying the country," says Rima Tarabay, who was long an adviser to the Hariri family. "The attribution of political posts according to religion is a disaster."

The Taif accords, which ended the civil war, demanded an end to confessionalism. France believes that reforming certain key sectors such as the electricity, telecommunications and justice ministries, the customs service and central bank, are more immediate priorities.