BEIRUT — Emmanuel Macron says he’s making a “risky bet” by working to avoid a political collapse in Lebanon, but is limited in what he can achieve.
“It’s the last chance for this system,” the French president told POLITICO in an interview while en route from Paris to Beirut Monday evening.
“It’s a risky bet I’m making, I am aware of it … I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital.”
Macron is in the Middle Eastern country and former French protectorate for the second time within a month to try to chart a way forward based on reforms in exchange for a bailout. The country has been reeling from a long-standing political and financial crisis, in addition to the resurgence of the coronavirus and the massive explosion that ripped through Beirut’s port in August, killing nearly 200 and prompting the resignation of Hassan Diab as prime minister.
After weeks of French pressure to nominate a so-called credible figure to the premiership, political parties agreed to put forward diplomat Mustapha Adib as the new prime minister on Monday — just hours before Macron’s arrival.
The French president has emerged as the only global heavyweight to have offered the country’s leaders a potential path to safety, though his critics say he isn’t doing enough.
Lebanon’s ruling class has steamrolled previous attempts by the international community to push reform in the country. Macron warned the next three months will be “fundamental” for real change to happen, and if it doesn’t, he will switch tack, taking punitive measures that range from withholding a vital international financial bailout to imposing sanctions against the ruling class.
But Macron’s detractors say he is not using the full breadth of France’s influence and power to bring about the change he seeks, given the Lebanese party currently most opposed to real reforms — Hezbollah — is empowered to do so due to its umbilical bond with Iran and the formidable financing and arming it provides.
Macron refuted the critique, arguing: “If we fight force with force, that’s called escalation,” and that only leads to war, which he said is the last thing Lebanon needs.
“Don’t ask France to come wage war against a Lebanese political force … It would be absurd and crazy.”
The choice Macron is faced with in Lebanon is the same one liberal democracies are facing in dealing with countries such as Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, which don’t hesitate to use armed force, violate international laws and subvert the global rules-based system.
“The difficulty of those who defend a pluralist path is not to fall into the trap of the escalation of powers; it’s the trap I don’t want to fall into and I won’t fall into, including in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Macron said, referring to Turkey’s rising tensions with Greece over maritime territory.
Macron insisted he doesn’t have a record of being soft and isn’t about to back down in Lebanon either — citing his administration’s decision to launch an airstrike in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, and deployment of a ship and two fighter jets to the Mediterranean in response to Ankara’s moves in disputed waters.
The French leader said he plans to engage with the new prime minister-designate and all Lebanese political parties in parliament — including those he doesn’t agree with. Macron said he wants credible commitments from political party leaders that they’ll make reforms, including a concrete timetable for implementing changes and holding a parliamentary election within “six to 12 months.” He also said he wants to implement a “demanding” follow-up mechanism on these pledges.
Macron’s return to Lebanon after a first visit following the blast has been met with a wave of skepticism of what he’s been able to achieve, even among those who hailed him as a potential savior for the country only three weeks ago.
A small crowd waited for Macron outside the house of legendary Lebanese singer Fayrouz — whom he visited Monday in his first stop — shouting “Adib won’t do!” and “We want Nawaf Salam!”
Critics are disgruntled with the choice of the new prime minister-designate, a hitherto largely unknown figure, who served as chief of staff to Najib Mikati, a former embattled prime minister, and most recently as ambassador to Germany.
Macron said the closest alternative, Nawaf Salam — a current judge on the International Court of Justice who has been the main candidate for prime minister of civil society and opposition groups that have been protesting since October 2019 — would not have worked.
Hezbollah vetoed the choice. On top of that, Salam’s support comes from protest movements rather than political parties, meaning he wouldn’t have had enough parliamentary support. He would have needed to be granted exceptional legislative powers for a transitional period to be able to pass reforms and hold elections unobstructed — something France couldn’t secure.
“If I imposed Mr. Nawaf Salam … we kill his candidacy because we put him in a system in which the parliament will block everything,” Macron said.
But Macron also accused the protest movement of not rising to the occasion.
“A name works if the street knows how to produce a leader who leads the revolution, and breaks the system. It didn’t work, at least not today, maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow it will.”
Macron also rejected accusations that he personally chose Adib and made a deal with Iran.
“I don’t know him, I didn’t choose him, and it’s not my job to interfere or approve,” he said.
Macron claimed he’s exerting pressure in Lebanon in a way that hasn’t been done before by visiting the country in such quick succession; holding frank, long and repeated conversations with the ruling class; threatening to withhold aid and impose sanctions, among other things.
Citing Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci, Macron said: “The new is having a hard time emerging, and the old is persevering. We have to find a way through, that’s what I’m trying to do.”