Lebanon – Can France Resolve the Country’s Multiple Crises?

Lebanon – Can France Resolve the Country’s Multiple Crises?

While Lebanon has been doubly afflicted by its economic crisis and the COVID pandemic, the fatal blow of Beirut’s port explosion heightened uncertainties concerning the country’s capacity to recover from its multiple troubles. Amid sporadic and hesitant foreign aid packages, France stood up as the figurehead of the country’s reconstruction. Nonetheless, the question remains: to what extent will Paris be able to bring about the changes Lebanon desperately needs?

Lebanon’s multiple crises

Macron stepped foot in the Middle Eastern country just two days after the Beirut explosion. The blast caused more than 190 deaths, 6,500 injuries and left around 300,000 people homeless. In addition to promising support in the reconstruction efforts, the French President sought to address the underlying issues that were bringing the country to its knees. 

Indeed, long before the blast on the 4th of August, Lebanon was experiencing serious economic and social crises. For example, unemployment was on the rise, and the national currency had already lost 80% of its value, as the public debt surpassed 94 billion dollars. The explosion shed new light on decades of corruption and mis-governance that have been tearing the country apart.

The coronavirus pandemic also took a toll on Lebanon; in addition to the health crisis, the consequences of the virus will likely have a negative impact on  Lebanon’s economy. Even if the lockdowns had suppressed the waves of protests that began in October 2019, the explosion reignited demonstrations – the people perceived the event to be the ultimate manifestation of years of mismanagement by the corrupt elite. This extreme discontent resulted in the resignation of PM Hassan Diab’s government a week after the blast. Yet, more was expected by the Lebanese people and the international observers.

France’s involvement

Given France’s powerful reputation and the countries’ historic ties, Macron admitted to using his “political capital” to justify the risky mission of saving the Lebanese government, which has been described as the last credible chance to do so

As noted above, France’s leading role in international assistance to Lebanon is a product of the two countries’ shared history. Macron’s visit on the 31 August – the second in a month – also marked the commemoration of the centenary of Lebanon’s creation under French mandate. Since Lebanon’s independence, France closely followed the country’s development, even taking the lead on European foreign policy concerning Lebanon.

Additionally, Paris’ current involvement in Lebanon represents a new move on the chessboard of France’s Mediterranean policy. France’s approach has been described by critics as inadequate and weak, but Macron reminded his people of France’s strong presence in the region – exemplified by its strikes in Syria and its recent military action in the Mediterranean.   

Lebanon has always suffered from regional crises and has been a host to foreign interference. The active roles of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US – all seeking to push their own agendas through the fragmented sectarian system in Lebanon – represent potential blocks to the formation of a stable Lebanese government.

Reforms’ credibility

During his first visit on the 6th of August, Macron made it clear that further French aid would be conditional on Lebanon’s agreement to proposed reforms. While international donors agreed to send 252.7 million euros as emergency aid right after the blast, the IMF also insisted that the bailout envisaged before the explosion remained dependent on the necessary reforms.

Macron stated that France was expecting a credible commitment to enacting reforms, and specifically underlined the need for a reliable audit of the financial sector and the Central Bank. The President also requested a clear roadmap for reform implementation, and the planning of elections within a year.

France’s conditional aid was accompanied by the threat of withholding the financial bailout and imposing sanctions on the country’s elite, should it fail to implement such reforms.

So far, Lebanon’s compliance with the international requirements remains to be seen. Lebanon had been pressured for weeks to nominate a new Prime Minister before Macron’s second visit. Mustapha Adib managed to secure a parliamentary majority just hours before Macron’s arrival, which was perceived as an expeditive move by the Lebanese elite.

Despite Adib’s promising first moves as PM, the Sunni politician was perceived by critics to be another pawn appointed by traditional parties. Adib indeed served as Chief of Staff under former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is seen by the population as a member of the corrupt elite.  

Macron’s second visit contrasted with his first one, as he arrived a few days after Adib’s resignation for failing to form a government. The successful signing of a roadmap to reforms was weakened by the absence of two key elements which Macron had long advocated for: the planning of early elections and the disarmament of Hezbollah. 


Several elements could jeopardise Macron’s plan. The involvement of the old ruling class in the reform implementation process represents one of the population’s greatest worries. While snap elections could have partially addressed that issue, the French President claimed they would only have postponed vital changes for (at least) a year. 

In response to the protesters’ call for the appointment of international lawyer Nawaf Salam as PM, Macron argued that the parliament would have rejected Salam’s candidacy and, by extension, his reform proposals. Instead, Macron stressed that priority should be given to financial reforms and economic reconstruction. 

The future status and degree of involvement of Hezbollah also remains uncertain. Hezbollah benefited enormously from the old political system and is therefore one of the main opponents to its reforms. Critics suggested stronger French involvement was needed to counterbalance the arming and financing of Hezbollah by Iran. In any event, Macron repeatedly insisted on the need for de-escalation. 

Nevertheless, France possesses unique features that could put it in an unparalleled position to reshape Lebanon. France enjoys a unique relationship with each of the country’s three major religious groups, and is willing to discuss with all parties. Macron’s direct contact with Mohammed Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary group, also demonstrates the President’s exceptional position to negotiate with each group involved. Despite Macron’s optimism, Lebanon needs to experience radical changes before it can convince the rest of the international community of its sincere desire for reconstruction. 

In the meantime, much is expected from Macron’s third visit in December, scheduled for shortly after French Foreign Minister Le Drian’s visit in November. France will also carry on with its tradition of holding Lebanon-related conferences in October 2020 to address reconstruction efforts. Nevertheless, past failures to bring about significant change in Lebanon indicate that more efforts will be needed to eventually put Lebanon on a path of real recovery. 

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