Le Drian described as disappointed by Lebanese politicians’ performance
BEIRUT - At the end of his visit to Lebanon, France’s top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian was described by Lebanese sources as feeling deeply disappointment at the performance of the political elite in the country and the pace of reforms, warning that any international assistance hinged on urgent action.
“Lebanon is on the verge of the abyss. But there are ways on the table to fix this,” he said during a visit Friday to a school in Mechref district, south of the capital, Beirut.
Le Drian, who arrived here late Wednesday, urged Lebanese officials to go through with an audit of the country’s central bank, reform a bloated and highly indebted electricity sector and maintain an independent judiciary.
After meetings with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday, Le Drian said the time is critical.
“What I want to tell those responsible in Lebanon today is, ‘help yourselves and France and its partners will help you’,” he said. “It is the key message of my visit.”
Le Drian’s patience was clearly wearing thin as he dished out more criticism during an afternoon visit to Amel, a charity in southern Beirut that helps some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable.
“I was reading in Lebanese newspapers that Lebanon was waiting for Le Drian. No, it’s France that’s waiting for Lebanon,” he said.
France has previously organised conferences that pledged assistance to Lebanon but demanded reforms to the public sector and governance.
Le Drian said France has already donated €50 million ($58 million), primarily to the health care sector to deal with the coronavirus challenge.
The visiting diplomat pledged Friday €15 million — about $17 million — in aid to Lebanon’s schools, struggling under the weight of the country’s economic crisis.
Le Drian said France will not let the “Lebanese youth alone” face the crisis that has hit the education sector hard.
Schools have let some teachers and administrators go and many face the risk of closure.
Many parents, struggling to pay private school fees, have enrolled their children in already overcrowded public schools.
The French assistance will go to a network of over 50 French and Francophone schools.
Though Le Drian’s focus was on the economy, he also criticised Iran-backed Hezbollah, without naming the group, by calling for the Lebanese Army to exert control over all of the country’s territory.
With his Lebanese counterpart on his side, Le Drian vowed support to Lebanon’s military.”We will maintain our support to the Lebanese army, the cornerstone of this state, and to the security forces which, together, play a crucial role in ensuring the security and stability of the country,” he said in an implicit disavowal of Hezbollah’s attempts at acting as a state-within-the-state.
“It is essential that the Lebanese state asserts its authority and control over all of its territory,” he added in a thinly-veiled allusion to the Iran-backed Shia party’s ambitions.
He also called on Lebanon to distance itself from regional crises, in a clear reference to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria.
Le Drian also spoke of the crisis of the electricity sector in Lebanon, which was caused mainly by Gebran Bassil, the President of the Free Patriotic Movement.
Bassil has been accused of corruption that caused heavy losses in the electricity sector, raising the public debt to about 40 billion dollars.
Commenting on the French foreign minister’s visit, Member of the Strong Republic parliamentary bloc, MP Pierre Bouassi, said that “the disregard of national affairs and the fate of the Lebanese people prompted French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to visit Lebanon, conveying a direct message that there will be no solution or any assistance, if no serious reforms are implemented.”
“Lebanon needs a strong diplomacy to extend security and cultural bridges with the world.” Bouassi said.
“We isolated ourselves by ourselves, and our diplomacy in the last four years has been very bad. There is a real cooling in Lebanon’s relations with other countries and Bassil’s management of the diplomatic file was disastrous. Now we are reaping the results,” he added.
Bouassi also criticised Hezbollah as the main political player that has dragged the country into regional crises, calling for the necessity of building on the initiative of Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai that calls for Lebanon’s neutrality.
The economic crisis has impacted almost all facets of life in Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country long considered a middle-income state.
Since last year, unemployment has risen and poverty deepened, as foreign currency dried up and the national currency lost more than 80% of its value against the dollar.
On Thursday, Le Drian said the only way out of the financial and economic crisis is for Lebanon to secure a programme with the International Monetary Fund. France and its allies would then be able to secure assistance to Lebanon, he said.
Talks with the IMF have been bogged down in internal political disputes and struggles over who is to blame for banking losses.
Lebanon is facing a new surge in coronavirus cases, recently recording three-digit numbers of cases a day — a spike from before it eased restrictions in July. So far, Lebanon has reported more than 3,200 cases, including 43 deaths from the virus.
During lunch with Le Drian on Thursday, Hadi Al-Hashem, a Foreign Ministry official, got the news that he had tested positive for the virus. Al-Hashem told Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV that he has no symptoms.
But his test result prompted Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti and other officials to get tested, and they were negative, the report said.
A French diplomat at the embassy in Beirut said the French delegation took all precautions and respected social distancing during meetings. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to talk to reporters.