France warns Lebanese politicians: No special treatment for anyone, anymore
BEIRUT – French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian threatened to ratchet up pressure on Lebanese politicians, accusing them of seeking “collective suicide” by failing to pull the country out of its deep economic crisis.
It became clear, according to Lebanese political analysts, that Le Drian was referring to the entire Lebanese political class, that Paris blames everyone and that the rule from now on is that there will be no favouritism anymore in France’s attitude towards any of Lebanon’s leaders.
Lebanese analysts said Le Drian’s visit this time was totally different from past trips as his meetings with the three leaders were cold. He is said to have listened to their justifications more than he talked but he held them responsible for the failure of France’s initiative to form a government of specialists in Lebanon.
Sources said the French minister could not fathom how the steps discussed last summer had still not been taken nearly a year later.
His impression was that Lebanese politicians are not pressured by time and the possible impact of the continuation of the crisis, despite the sharp economic and social collapse that is making the suffering of the Lebanese unbearable.
In his meetings with Lebanese politicians, the French foreign minister did not raise the main issue facing Lebanon today, which is the hegemony of Hezbollah and Iran over the country’s decision-making process.
Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on Friday that France, which has spearheaded efforts to provide foreign aid, must move on towards addressing the political impasse, after the many months of talks aimed at forming a new government have reached a dead end.
He added that if the situation continues, there will be strict punitive measures, at the French level and perhaps also at the level of the European Union, against Lebanese politicians who are blocking the solution to the crisis.
Le Drian did not answer questions about when the sanctions could be imposed nor whom they would target.
He said only that his country has begun putting in place restrictive measures against Lebanese figures responsible for the current political deadlock and that these measures could be tightened with additional European instruments. His message was that Lebanese politicians are not just confronted with a French démarche that could be overcome with time, but that the French sanctions may be taken up by the rest of the European Union.
Anwar al-Khalil, a member of the Lebanese parliament, wondered if Le Drian’s firm message to those who are obstructing the formation of the government demonstrated that the international community, not just France, believes Lebanese politician suffer from a split personality of sorts.
What the French leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, do not understand is how the Lebanese leaders could initially express enthusiasm for the Paris initiative as offering a magic solution for Lebanon’s problems and then renege on their pledges once the meetings were over.
Khalil expressed his hope that Le Drian’s message would be enough to convince the Lebanese spoilers to alter their behaviour.
”It is indeed urgent to find a way out of the political deadlock,” Le Drian told reporters after the series of meetings he held in Beirut, most notably with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
He said, “to this day, my observation is that the political players have not lived up to their responsibilities and have still not seriously started working on the country’s recovery,” warning that “if they do not act responsibly starting today, they must bear the consequences of this failure and the consequences of the denial of the pledges they have made”.
For months, France has led an international pressure campaign to ensure the formation of a government of specialists in Lebanon, but its efforts have not borne fruit as political divisions and divergence of views over the share share-out of ministries have blocked the way.
On Friday, Le Drian accused politicians of leading the country towards its demise.“I am here to avoid this kind of mass suicide,” he said.
In an attempt to redouble pressure on the political class, France last month imposed restrictions on admission to France of Lebanese figures it considers responsible both for the political stalemate and for corruption in their country.
The figures targeted by the sanctions and the nature of the restrictions have yet to be revealed.
Le Drian threatened that if the stalemate continues, it may be possible to “tighten or expand these measures” to affect other politicians, but did not mention any names.
The French minister stressed that “it is up to the Lebanese officials to decide whether they want to get out of the impasse where they are now.”
The international community has, especially since the Beirut port bombing of August 4, 2020, made financial support to Lebanon conditional on the government’s undertaking urgent reforms .
International aid is seen as necessary for Lebanon to escape the downward spiral of economic collapse which it has faced for more than a year and a half now.
But nine months after the resignation of Hassan Diab’s government following the Beirut seaport blast and despite the weight of the economic collapse and international pressures, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has been unable to form a cabinet.
Hariri’s failure is linked, according to experts, to his disagreement with Gebran Bassil, the Free Patriotic Movement leader and son-in-law of President Aoun, over quotas in the cabinet.
Lebanese sources said that Bassil did everything in his power to meet Le Drian during his visit to Beirut, but the French minister did not include him in his schedule.
Le Drian met also representatives of opposition groups, who had taken part in the unprecedented protests that erupted in the country in 2019 and lasted for months, clamouring for the removal of the entire political class.
These groups told the French minister of their fear that the political class would succeed in postponing the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for the spring of 2022.
But Le Drian stressed that “respect of the democratic timetable in Lebanon is imperative and the international community will not tolerate any attempt to delay it.”
Due to sharp political divisions and quota-related disputes, governments have often in the past taken months to form in Lebanon. But the economic collapse, which was exacerbated by the port blast and the pandemic-related measures, has made further procrastination untenable.
French President Emmanuel Macron has visited Lebanon twice since the port explosion and repeated calls on the political forces to form a government that would carry out reforms. Last September, he announced an initiative, that he said had the agreement of all political forces, for the formation of a government within two weeks.