Macron to Lebanese Leaders: Reform Now or Face Sanctions

French president gives ultimatum in symbolism-filled visit to former colony torn by internal strife, financial crisis

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French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he arrives at Beirut International Airport, August 31, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he arrives at Beirut International Airport, August 31, 2020.Credit: Gonzalo Fuentes,AP

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned Lebanese politicians they risk sanctions if they fail to set the nation on a new course within three months, stepping up pressure for reforms in a country collapsing under the weight of an economic crisis.

Visiting for the second time in less than a month, Macron marked Lebanon's centenary by travelling to a forest outside Beirut to plant a cedar tree, the emblem of a nation facing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

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In central Beirut, close to the port that was devastated in a huge August 4 blast, police fired teargas at stone-throwing protesters who gathered outside parliament to vent anger at mismanagement and state corruption that has dragged Lebanon into crisis.

An anti-government protester throws a stone towards riot police during a protest near Parliament Square, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 1, 2020.Credit: Hassan Ammar,AP

"It's the last chance for this system," Macron told POLITICO in an interview. "It's a risky bet I'm making ... I am putting the only thing I have on the table: My political capital."

Macron, who toured the wrecked port on Tuesday, said he wanted "credible commitments" and a follow-up mechanism from Lebanon's leaders, including a legislative election in six to 12 months.

Should they fail to shift direction in the next three months, he said, punitive measures could be imposed, including withholding bailout money and sanctions on the ruling class.

Lebanese politicians, some of them former warlords who have overseen decades of industrial-scale corruption, now face a daunting task with an economy in meltdown, a swathe of Beirut in tatters after the port blast and sectarian tensions rising.

Pressure from Macron, who told online news provider Brut he would visit again in December, has already pushed major parties to agree on a new prime minister, Mustapha Adib, who has called for the rapid formation of a government and promised swift reforms to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Forming a cabinet has taken months in the past. But Macron said he would push politicians to move swiftly and said billions of dollars in funds pledged at a 2018 Paris donor conference in Paris would not be released without reforms.

Foreign influence

Macron, who also visited Beirut in the immediate aftermath of the port blast that killed more than 190 people and injured 6,000, said the international community must stay focused on the emergency in Lebanon for six weeks.

He said he was ready to help organize an international conference with the United Nations in October. "I am ready to host it in Paris," he said.

Although Macron has taken centre stage in demanding change, other foreign powers still exercise big influence on Lebanon, notably Iran through the heavily armed Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

French Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France spray white lines of smoke, as they fly over the scene of the August 4 explosion that hit the seaport, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 1, 2020.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

A senior envoy from the United States, which classifies Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and which has pumped money into the Lebanon's army, is due in Beirut on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia has also traditionally exercised sway through Lebanon's Sunni community.

As Macron planted the cedar sapling, the French air force flew overhead, leaving smoke trails of red, white and green, the national colours of Lebanon whose borders were proclaimed by France 100 years ago in an imperial carve-up with Britain. It gained independence in 1943.

Macron began his trip on Monday by meeting Fairouz, 85, one of the Arab world's most famous singers whose music transcends Lebanon's divisions. Outside her home, protesters waved banners. One read: "No cabinet by, or with, the murderers."

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Lebanese singer Fairouz, August 31, 2020. Credit: Soazig de la Moissonniere / Présidence de la République

Macron met President Michel Aoun for a centenary reception and will also meet Lebanon's main factions.

Crushed by a mountain of debt, Lebanon's currency has collapsed and depositors have been frozen out of their increasingly worthless savings in a paralysed banking system. Poverty and unemployment have soared.

"Today everything is blocked and Lebanon can no longer finance itself," Macron said, adding that the central bank and banking system were in crisis and an audit was needed.

"We need to know the truth of the numbers, so that judicial actions can then be taken," he said.

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