Is France helping Lebanon, or trying to reconquer it?

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, two days after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital. (AFP)
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Updated 09 August 2020

Is France helping Lebanon, or trying to reconquer it?

  • A surprising online petition emerged this week asking France to temporarily restore its mandate, saying Lebanon’s leaders have shown “total inability to secure and manage the country”

PARIS: It was almost as if Emmanuel Macron forgot that Lebanon is no longer a French protectorate.
Visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut this week, France’s leader comforted distraught crowds, promised to rebuild the city and claimed that the blast pierced France’s own heart. “France will never let Lebanon go,” Macron said. “The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut.”
His critics denounced the overtures as a neocolonialist foray by a European leader seeking to restore sway over a troubled Middle Eastern land — and distract from mounting problems at home. A meme circulating online dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon.
But Macron’s defenders — including desperate Beirut residents who called him “our only hope” — praised him for visiting gutted neighborhoods where Lebanese leaders fear to tread, and for trying to hold Lebanon’s politicians accountable for the corruption and mismanagement blamed for Tuesday’s deadly blast.
Macron’s visit exposed France’s central challenge as it prepares to host an international donors conference for Lebanon on Sunday: How to help a country in crisis, where French economic ties run deep, without interfering in its internal affairs.
“We are walking on the edge of a precipice. We have to aid, support and encourage the Lebanese people, but at the same time not give the impression that we want to establish a new protectorate, which would be completely stupid,” said Jack Lang, a former French government minister who now heads the Arab World Institute in Paris. “We must find new, intelligent solutions to aid the Lebanese.”
France’s ties with Lebanon reach back at least to the 16th century, when the French monarchy negotiated with Ottoman rulers to protect Christians — and secure influence — in the region. By the time of the 1920-1946 French mandate, Lebanon already had a network of French schools and French speakers that survives to this day — along with France’s cozy relationships with Lebanon’s power brokers, including some accused of fueling its political and economic crisis.

HIGHLIGHT

Macron’s defenders — including desperate Beirut residents who called him ‘our only hope’ — praised him for visiting gutted neighborhoods where Lebanese leaders fear to tread

A surprising online petition emerged this week asking France to temporarily restore its mandate, saying Lebanon’s leaders have shown “total inability to secure and manage the country.”
It is widely seen as an absurd idea — Macron himself told Beirut residents on Wednesday that “it’s up to you to write your history” — but 60,000 people have signed it, including members of France’s 250,000-strong Lebanese diaspora and people in Lebanon who said it is a way to express their desperation and distrust of the political class.
Aside from a show of much-needed international support, many in Lebanon viewed Macron’s visit as a way to secure financial assistance for a country wracked with debt.
The French leader also managed to bring the divided political class together, if briefly. In a rare scene, the heads of Lebanon’s political factions — some of them still bitter enemies from the 1975-1990 civil war — appeared together at the Palais des Pins, the French Embassy headquarters in Beirut, and filed out after meeting Macron.
But to many, the visit was seen as patronizing. Some lashed out at the petition and those celebrating “France, the tender mother.”
One writer, Samer Frangieh, said Macron gathered the politicians as “schoolchildren,” reprimanding them for failing to carry out their duties.
There were other, more subtle jabs against France’s show of influence. While Macron was touring neighborhoods torn apart by the explosion, the health minister in the Hezbollah-backed government toured field hospitals donated by Iran and Russia, major power players in the region.
“I get the people who want the mandate. They have no hope,” said Leah, an engineering student in Beirut who did not want her last name published out of concern for political repercussions. She spoke out strongly against the idea, and against those who see Macron as Lebanon’s “savior.”
She said that risks worsening Lebanon’s divisions, as Maronite Christians and French-educated Muslims embrace Macron while others lean away. “He hasn’t resolved his issues with his country, with his people. How is he giving advice to us?” she asked.
In Paris, Macron’s domestic political opponents from the far left to the far right warned the centrist leader against creeping neocolonialism, and extracting political concessions from Lebanon in exchange for aid. “Solidarity with Lebanon should be unconditional,” tweeted Julien Bayou, head of the popular Greens party.
Macron himself firmly rejected the idea of reviving the French mandate.
“You can’t ask me to substitute for your leaders. It’s not possible,” he said. “There is no French solution.”
But he made a point of noting that he plans to return to Lebanon to verify that promised reforms are being undertaken on Sept. 1, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Greater Lebanon — and the beginning of French rule.


Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

Updated 21 September 2020

Lebanon finds four bodies after deadly sea crossing

  • UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast
  • Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week
BEIRUT: Lebanon has retrieved the bodies of four people including a child after they tried to flee the crisis-hit country by sea on an overloaded dinghy, the civil defense said Monday.
A week ago, UN peacekeepers retrieved one body and rescued 36 people from a boat in trouble in international waters off the Lebanese coast.
Families of the survivors said the boat had been adrift without food or water for around a week, during which time several passengers had died or jumped overboard to find help.
The bodies are presumed to be from the same ill-fated crossing.
Since Friday, “we have retrieved four bodies — belonging to two Lebanese, one of whom was a child, a young Indian man and a Syrian man,” Samir Yazbek, the head of the civil defense’s sea rescue unit, told AFP.
The bodies were found in four separate locations off the north and south coasts of the country, and the search was ongoing, he added.
The UN refugee agency said last week that 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three people of other nationalities had been rescued from the boat.
It is unclear how many men, women and children originally clambered aboard the dinghy, and therefore how many are still missing.
On Saturday, the navy said it would step up its searches within and outside Lebanon’s territorial waters to find any other victims.
Relatives of those who went missing from the impoverished north Lebanese city of Tripoli say the people smuggler involved in the crossing has dropped off the radar since the tragedy.
They have filed three legal complaints against the man, who they say is a well-known figure in the community.
A military source on Saturday said a person acting as an intermediary between passengers and the boat owner had been arrested.
In recent weeks, dozens of Lebanese and Syrians have tried to make the perilous sea journey from Lebanon to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, authorities on both sides say.
The Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, lies just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.
Lebanon is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades, compounded since February by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It is also reeling from a monster blast at Beirut’s port last month that killed more than 190 people, ravaged large parts of the capital and reignited public anger against the political class.