France is for a strong and sovereign Lebanon: Veteran French diplomat

France is for a strong and sovereign Lebanon: Veteran French diplomat
Maurice Gourdault-Montagne
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Updated 01 September 2020

France is for a strong and sovereign Lebanon: Veteran French diplomat

France is for a strong and sovereign Lebanon: Veteran French diplomat
  • Maurice Gourdault-Montagne’s career spanned some of the high points of French diplomacy in Lebanon
  • In exclusive interview, he says the time of the French mandate and colonization ‘is behind us’

PARIS: Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a diplomatic adviser to former President Jacques Chirac, served as French ambassador in London, Berlin, Tokyo and Beijing between 1998 and 2017. Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under President Emmanuel Macron, he retired last June. Gourdault-Montagne’s career spanned some of the high points of French diplomacy in Lebanon, as well as the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Paris, and President Chirac’s refusal to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraqi in 2003. He spoke exclusively to Arab News en Français on three broad topics.

On the verdict of the Special International Tribunal for Lebanon.

On Feb. 14, 2005, I was in my car when President Chirac called me, saying: “Rafic Hariri has just been assassinated. You have to come back immediately so that we can have a meeting to assess the situation and you can go to Beirut to pay tribute to him and his family.”

I remember this trauma for Lebanon, and for us Frenchmen. A champion of Lebanese sovereignty had been assassinated and France felt deeply connected to Lebanon at that moment. We supported the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

We wanted an efficient search for the truth for justice to prevail. A verdict has been delivered 15 years later. This verdict, like any other, disappointed some people, satisfied some and delighted others. I think we must face realities.

The court has worked with very competent magistrates to try to unravel interwoven responsibilities with what they had at their disposal. So, the job they did was extremely meticulous and difficult.

The magistrates of the court did not venture into politics, sticking strictly to the law. They had identified four culprits who were not neutral in their allegiances; they exonerated three of them and condemned only one.

It is necessary to read between the lines to fully understand who has been designated through this single condemnation, which some felt was not enough in terms of justice being served.

This culprit is not neutral in his allegiance. What is important is that the tribunal continues to work on the assassination attempts of (former Lebanese minister) Marwan Hamadeh and (former Lebanese deputy prime minister) Elias Murr.

It is through this tenacity and stubbornness to bring about justice that we will achieve the desired goals. I think those targeted have understood that.

On the criticism surrounding French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion and again for the centennial of Greater Lebanon.

We must keep in mind that the time of the French mandate, of colonization, is behind us. The time now is one of solidarity and common interests. It is a fact that France has a historical past with Lebanon that gives the Franco-Lebanese relationship something very singular, very special and unique.

This history is based on the fact that France has accompanied Lebanon in its independence and that, for France, Lebanon is and must remain a model of balance, openness, tolerance and democracy.

For years, we have been witnessing the weakening of Lebanon. The issue, which was highlighted by the revolution in October and exacerbated by this explosion, is that Lebanon today is affected in its integrity, in its independence, and in its sovereignty.

It is essential to get Lebanon back on track. The country has internal challenges to face, namely the reforms and the overhaul of a political system where clientelism paralyzes everything, while there are elites and an exceptional level of education in the region. This country must be able to go further.

There obviously are external challenges. What we want, and this is the aim of President Macron’s second visit, is to stand beside Lebanon in its reforms, to lead the international community alongside Lebanon.

We want to work to make Lebanon stronger, more stable, more prosperous, so that capital and investments return to Lebanon, reforms take place, and the country, in its regional environment, is also stronger.

What we share with Lebanon today is its stability in the region, its prosperity. The region and the country need a strong Lebanon. That is our endgame. France has no other ambition and does not dictate anything in Lebanon; it only urges its leaders to assume their responsibilities.”

How the problem posed by Hezbollah can be resolved.

Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese landscape. It has elected officials and the support of a demographically growing population. The whole point is to find a balance from these facts. It is also important to understand who this party is working for.

It is a Lebanese party, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, says that it defends the Lebanese state. At the same time, paradoxically, Hezbollah continues to stock up on weapons that it systematically refuses to transfer to the national army, despite the demands of the international community.

This is therefore a real issue; this party, which is Lebanese and which, at the same time, pledges allegiance to a foreign state. This is an unacceptable situation. Hezbollah, like other parties, must contribute to Lebanon’s reforms, leading to a strong state with its rightful place in it.

Hezbollah is a trump card in the hands of Iran, a country that destabilizes the surrounding states via its religious communities in order to defend itself. It is important for France to continue talking to Iran.

It is not by isolating Tehran that we will weaken its allies, namely Hezbollah. So, we want to continue talks with Iran because that country has a place in the region, not at any cost, rather within the framework of balances that must be defined through dialogue, and conferences where everyone has their place.

Indeed, Iran is now playing a destabilizing role in the region, against which we must organize ourselves in order to discuss with them a convenient solution.

President Chirac had sent me to speak with the Iranians at that time. It is a long-term process that affects some countries such as Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen. Doing so is extremely important.

We believe that Hezbollah must have its rightful place in Lebanon, and Iran its rightful place in the region, but that party’s allegiance cannot be to foreign powers if it wants to be a full fledged Lebanese party.