Often, in its international strategy, France launches praiseworthy initiatives. But, alas, it also frequently shows itself incapable of executing them well. By a mixture of forgetting the balance of power and a naive belief in providential solutions, it often ends up with a result contrary to its hopes.
This lack of coherence on the part of France between its strategy and its tactics is currently flagrant in Lebanon. Moved by the monumental explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, Emmanuel Macron spent a lot of time and effort that year to get the country of the Cedar out of its political and economic rut.
He visited Beirut twice, arousing the enthusiasm of the Lebanese. But since then, their political situation and standard of living have not improved one iota.
Strategically, the French president was right to invest in this issue. First, because the State of Lebanon is a French political creation, and it is normal that a power waters what it has sown.
Secondly, because this tolerant democracy, where Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Druze live together, must be preserved as a model of society for the whole of the Middle East.
Finally, because France is better placed than anyone else to act as a godmother to a regenerated Lebanon. Better placed than America, discredited by the disaster that its military interference has caused in Iraq. Better placed than Iran, whose theocratic regime is on its last legs. Better placed than Saudi Arabia, busy pacifying its relations with its immediate neighbourhood.
“Help yourself, the sky will help you,” is in essence the French strategy in Lebanon since the Cedar Conference, held in Paris in April 2018.
It tells the Lebanese to make reforms (of their banking system, their administration, their energy sector) and that in exchange France will release for them grants and loans from international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, EU Official Development Assistance) and the Gulf petro-monarchies.
This is a good strategy. It is simple, clear and fair.
The problem is that the leaders of the major Lebanese parties are feudal communitarians, incapable of sacrificing a crumb of their power and their predations on the altar of reform. For six months they have been unable to agree on a new President of the Republic, with Michel Aoun leaving the Baabda Palace on October 30, 2022.
The president, always a Maronite Christian according to constitutional practice, must be elected by an absolute majority of the 128 members of the unicameral Lebanese parliament. The difficulty is that a two-thirds quorum is required for the election to be valid. Only a consensual personality is therefore able to be elected.
France – to whom Trump’s and then Biden’s America tacitly entrusted the Western management of the Lebanese file – repeats to anyone who will listen that its line remains clear and that it only wants three things: reforms, a reformist prime minister, and a president who does not hinder reforms.
Since the Taif Accords of October 1989, which have constitutional status, it is the prime minister (always a Sunni) who is responsible for conducting the nation’s policy, with the power of appointment remaining with the president.
To their great surprise, the Lebanese reformists learned that France was secretly encouraging Sleimane Frangié’s candidacy for the presidency of the Republic and asked the Saudis to convince the Lebanese Sunni deputies to do so. Coming from an old political family in the north of the country, Frangié is a classic feudalist, totally aligned with the Damascus-Tehran axis.
Is France not naive to believe that, under the pretext that he is outspoken, Frangié will respect his promise to encourage reform? Since the late 1970s, Syria and Iran have done nothing but occupy, steal or instrumentalize Lebanon to satisfy their own interests.
These two countries already have in their hands the president of the Lebanese Parliament. He is the master of the convocations and of the agenda, and he has an almost absolute power of veto. Why would they want to give them the presidency of the Republic as well (through which the important appointments of the next prime minister, director of the central bank and chief of staff of the army will be made)? Shouldn’t we take advantage of the Iranian-Saudi reconciliation to obtain a compromise on a truly reformist personality?
It is not unhealthy for France to seek one day to bring Syria and Iran back into the arena of nations. But to want to give them the keys to Lebanon today is totally incoherent.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.