‘Help us help you’: French envoy’s plea to Lebanon

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, arrives to meet Lebanese president Michel Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 23, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 24 July 2020

‘Help us help you’: French envoy’s plea to Lebanon

  • Foreign minister kicks off two-day visit with call for urgent reforms

BEIRUT: French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian began a two-day visit to Lebanon on Thursday with a call to “help us help you” amid the country’s worsening economic and financial crisis.

Wearing a face mask featuring the French and Lebanese national flags, Le Drian said: “France stands with Lebanon in these difficult circumstances, as it has always done throughout history.”

The minister, who arrived in Beirut late on Wednesday, called for reforms to help Lebanon tackle the problems plaguing the country’s economy.

“This is a message that I convey to all Lebanese authorities and political parties, for it is not only what France aims for but it is what the whole international community is seeking,” he said.

Le Drian, the first foreign official to visit Lebanon amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said France “insists on helping Lebanon and looks forward to implementing the much-needed reforms.”

He added: “The terms of the CEDRE conference are still standing and could be activated in parallel with the reforms the Lebanese government vowed to endorse in Paris.”

The 2018 conference, staged in Paris, attempted to find ways to boost the Lebanese economy.

The Lebanese government at the time, headed by Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, had presented a comprehensive investment and reform plan for Lebanon. Donor countries vowed to provide support based on special conditions and mechanisms, and promised $12 billion in financial aid.

According to the Presidential Palace Media Office, the French minister listened to a presentation by Lebanese President Michel Aoun on the “steps that were achieved in the field of fighting corruption, including approving forensic financial auditing of state finances.”

Aoun highlighted “difficulties and obstacles to fighting corruption, especially with numerous perpetrators who are exerting pressures to obstruct it.”

The Lebanese leader stressed that Lebanon “clings to UN Resolution 1701,” and thanked France for “the role that it is playing to renew the term of the UNIFIL in Lebanon.” He talked about the implications of COVID-19 and the impact of displaced Syrians on the Lebanese economy, which “cost Lebanon $40 billion, according to data provided by international organizations.”

The president said that “Lebanese-French relations are deeply rooted in history, which necessitates cooperation for the benefit of both friendly countries and peoples.”

Le Drian called for a relaunch of negotiations with the IMF, saying: “There is no other solution to get Lebanon out of its crisis and I carry the message for the Lebanese, help us to help you.”

The French minister’s tour included a visit to Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri.

Diab’s office issued a statement which said the Prime Minister told Le Drian that the government achieved many reforms and faced many obstacles, but was still able to set a timetable for the rest of the reforms. Diab said Lebanon needs France’s support with electricity and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He added that the government will continue the reforms with transparency.

A meeting was also held in the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti and his team.

In a joint press conference, the French minister said: “Lebanon is facing a critical situation, and the economic crisis is great and has repercussions for the Lebanese, but France is determined to stand by the Lebanese people in these difficult circumstances. We want to prevent the crisis from affecting coexistence in Lebanon. Solutions for the crisis are available in the CEDRE conference resolutions, but needed reform should be implemented to get Lebanon out of its ordeal.”

Le Drian also toured Haret Hreik, a southern suburb of Beirut, where he visited the Amel Association International social center.

Amel President Dr. Kamel Mhanna told Arab News he was “personally keen that the French minister visits the region to talk to people in Amel who are Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian.”

“Dozens of French ministers visit Amel when they come to Lebanon. We have partnerships with French associations in the fields of vocational education, health and food. We have centers all over Lebanon and through this direct meeting between the French minister and the people, away from the media, the minister will elaborate an idea about the situation that everybody is suffering from in this country,” Mhanna said.

Le Drian is the first French or European official to visit Lebanon following the rise of the civil protest movement on Oct. 17 last year.

The French minister later met Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi in Bkerki, the supreme religious authority in the Maronite community.

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.