French minister to visit Lebanon and press for end to political deadlock

Paris curbing access to its territory for officials implicated in blockage or corruption

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to travel to Beirut on Tuesday to try to accelerate the formation of a government of independent experts that would rescue the country from economic collapse.

If the talks succeed, it could help revive the French reform roadmap and lead to the release of $21 billion in foreign aid, which could stem the country’s downward slide.

Ahead of his visit, Mr Le Drian said that France intended to exert pressure on recalcitrant politicians and officials who, for the past eight months, have obstructed the appointment of a non-partisan government. He said Paris "has started to put in place measures restricting access to French territory for people implicated in the political blockage under way, or implicated in corruption".

Those affected were not named and sanctions on individuals could be imposed later if there is no progress, he said. “We reserve the possibility to adopt additional measures toward all those who are hindering a solution to the crisis.”


Banks and property

Since some leading Lebanese political figures, including prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, hold French as well as Lebanese nationality, have accounts in French banks and own property in France, sanctions could inject forward momentum into cabinet-making.

Mr Le Drian has also consulted EU partners about adopting similar policies while Britain and the US are preparing sanctions on “corrupt” politicians who are blocking government formation.

Mr Le Drian is reported to be limiting his mission to meetings with president Michel Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. By insisting on appointing key ministers, Mr Aoun has prevented Mr Hariri from forming the government of independent experts demanded by France, while Mr Berri has tried to bridge differences between political factions.

Fraud and money-laundering

The minister's visit coincides with a legal case lodged in France by two non-governmental organisations fighting financial crime. They accuse Lebanon's central bank governor Riad Salameh of amassing property and a fortune in Europe by means of fraud and money-laundering. He has been blamed for the crisis in Lebanon's banking sector and is under investigation in Switzerland.

Having survived two civil wars and repeated Israeli invasions, Lebanon’s worst-ever crisis began in mid-2019 due to political paralysis and economic meltdown. The country’s currency has lost 85 per cent of its value to the dollar, driving up prices of imported food, medicine and fuel while politicians have squabbled over ministerial posts and blocked reforms.

Businesses, shops, restaurants, hotels and manufacturers have closed. The poverty level has risen to 55 per cent and charitable organisations battle hunger among the poorest communities.

The caretaker health ministry is one of the few ministries functioning effectively. By imposing lockdowns over both the western and Orthodox Easters, Lebanon has dramatically reduced daily Covid infections from 3,000 in early April to 249, and its World Bank-funded vaccination rollout is progressing well.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times