Emmanuel Macron hugs a victim of the Beirut port explosion. He told the country's leaders: 'If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid'
Emmanuel Macron hugs a victim of the Beirut port explosion. He told the country's leaders: 'If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid' © Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool/Reuters

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, descended on a prostrate Lebanon this week for the second time since the gigantic explosion shredded central Beirut. His message to the corrupt political elites that have brought the country to its knees was clear: reform and we will help you; resist change and there will be no aid — and we will punish you with individually targeted sanctions.

This démarche, delivered to Lebanon’s ageing president, a clutch of prime ministers old and new, and a procession of former warlords in suits, sectarian dynasts and billionaire power brokers, was extraordinary. Mr Macron laid out his demands to each of these barons, mostly from the French ambassador’s residence.

It was from this stately home that France ran Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate from 1920 to independence in 1943. Now, almost 80 years later, the French president demands: a new government within two weeks; “credible commitments” to reform and transparency within two months, thereby opening a path to an IMF deal to help refloat the country; and parliamentary elections within 12 months.

Since its civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon has had four big aid packages. But its leaders mostly failed to deliver reforms. Now, Lebanon is bankrupt. Zombie banks have lent 70 per cent of their assets to an insolvent state, transferred abroad billions for the elites but locked ordinary depositors out of accounts. Joblessness and poverty were already rife before the pandemic. The Beirut blast, as well as killing at least 200 and wounding 6,000, has made 300,000 homeless and destroyed businesses. Humanitarian aid has flowed in. But there are no more carrots for Lebanon’s rulers, only sharpened sticks.

“There is no blank cheque,” Mr Macron said on Tuesday. “If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid.” On this, the French president is more or less in harmony with the rest of Europe and the US.

French presidents have intervened before at blighted moments. Towards the end of the civil war, François Mitterrand whisked to safety Michel Aoun, the current president, who embroiled Lebanon in conflict with Syria and rival Christian forces. In 2005, after Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, Jacques Chirac arrived uninvited, snubbed the then president and went straight to the slain prime minister’s Beirut home.

Yet Mr Macron is taking a huge risk, as he acknowledged in an interview with Politico. He faces the power, patronage and wealth of entrenched baronial dynasties, some of which stretch back to the French mandate and its sectarian divide-and-rule tactics.

Protesters throng the streets and have toppled two prime ministers since October. But they seem unable to come up with a plan. Change will come only “if the street knows how to produce a leader who leads the revolution and breaks the system”, President Macron conceded.

The odds are not good. President Aoun, the former French protégé, is now the Christian pinnacle of a parliamentary majority controlled by Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Shia Muslim political party. The Party of God will not yield readily to a quasi-independent government or new elections.

“We have moved from a failed political system to a failed state,” laments one former Lebanese minister, who fears an exodus of the professional classes that make Lebanon work. But this haemorrhage of doctors, engineers and academics has already begun.

So many Lebanese face west. But the system they endure — which President Macron is taking on — faces east to Shia Iran. Formerly an underclass, the Shia have surged in numbers, wealth and power over the past half century, embodied by Hizbollah. Mr Macron seems adamant. So are they.

david.gardner@ft.com

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