Hollande’s snub to Hezbollah

Sunday 24/04/2016

The political crisis that has left Lebanon without a president for nearly two years was not the reason for French President François Hollande’s two-day visit to the country. Nor was this an attempt to breathe life into France’s role in Lebanon, a role that has been declining for decades along with the decline of Francophone culture.
Hollande’s visit to Beirut was motivated by challenges that France and Europe are facing, namely the Syrian refugee crisis. Europe is continuing to deal with the inexhaustible influx of Syrians displaced by fighting in Lebanon’s neighbour. This is an economic burden that is becom­ing increasingly difficult to bear, with France seeking to ensure that these refugees remain in countries adjoining Syria and do not make the arduous journey to Europe.
France has offered financial as­sistance to Lebanon to help it bear the cost of hosting the refugees — there are about 1.5 million Syr­ian refugees in the country — in addition to urgently needed as­sistance to the Lebanese military following Saudi Arabia’s decision to withdraw a $3 billion aid pack­age. This military assistance will ensure that Lebanon remains a safe haven for Syrian refugees, which will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe.
Hollande met with ministers and parliamentarians as well as other political and religious figures but not any official from Hezbollah. There was no official explanation, whether from Paris or Hezbollah, about this snub, particularly given that the Shia group dominates the power­ful March 8 alliance, which has senior ministers affiliated to it and is a major player in the political manoeuvrings over the vacant presidency.
Observers in Beirut said the lack of meeting between Hollande and any Hezbollah-affiliated figure is indicative of the growing regional and international exasperation with the group.
It has become increasingly rare for Western officials, and par­ticularly senior figures, to meet with Hezbollah representatives, particularly after the group was designated a terrorist organisation by many regional and interna­tional bodies, even if Hezbollah has a strong political presence in Lebanon. The latest body to en­dorse Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist group was the Organisa­tion of Islamic Cooperation in its recent summit in Istanbul.
The only way Hollande would have been able to meet with Hezbollah-affiliated figures would be if such a meeting would lead the militant group to adopt a more conciliatory tone in negotiations over the vacated presidential seat and, finally, to the election of a new head of state. Given the situation in Lebanon, any such breakthrough is unlikely and so Hollande chose not to risk any such meetings, particularly given the regional and international fallout this could have for him.
This deadlock over Lebanon’s presidency is not only motivated by domestic political issues but also by regional developments, particularly given the increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are backing rival political forces in Lebanon.
In spite of continuing support from Iran, Hezbollah is feeling the squeeze, which has likely motivated its recent regional political moves, including reports that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is working to reconcile former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and popular Shia figure Muqtada al-Sadr.
Whatever the truth, Hezbollah’s international stock is falling and that is something that Hollande was well aware of during his visit to Beirut. It is something that other Western and international leaders will also take into consid­eration.