France is making a diplomatic push to solve the political crisis caused by the snap resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this month, as the country’s foreign minister is expected to meet Hariri in Riyadh on Thursday.
According to at least one analyst, however, Paris may have made a “risky bet” by getting involved in the ongoing diplomatic turmoil over Hariri’s fate, which has pit Saudi Arabia against its regional rival, Iran, and Tehran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
“As no compromise in Lebanon will pass without an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran, Paris is looking to deal with both,” said Stephane Malsagne, a historian and professor at Sciences-Po in Paris.
The highest levels of the French government are getting involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the political turmoil gripping Lebanon, which was under French colonial rule until 1943.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to meet with Hariri in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, an aide said, according to Agence France Presse.
The meeting comes a day after Le Drian arrived in Riyadh and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a week after French President Emmanuel Macron also flew to Riyadh to meet the Crown Prince.
In a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir in the capital on Thursday, Le Drian said: “Concerted efforts must be made to restore the situation in Lebanon.”
High-level French diplomacy
Macron hastily flew to Saudi Arabia on November 9 from the nearby United Arab Emirates.
Macron’s stop in Riyadh came just as tensions were mounting between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the fate of the Lebanese prime minister.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and longtime ally of both Saudi Arabia and France, announced his resignation in a televised address from Riyadh on November 4.
Many, including Lebanese President Michel Aoun, have accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Hariri to step down and of holding him in detention.
The Saudis have denied the allegations and accused Hezbollah of creating a “state within a state” in Lebanon.
This week, Hariri said he planned to return to Lebanon soon, but did not specify when.
According to Malsagne, French diplomacy has so far “not succeeded in obtaining guarantees from Riyadh” on Hariri’s freedom of movement and speech, nor has it clarified when Hariri may be allowed to return to Lebanon or what the Saudis’ true political intentions are.
“It’s, therefore, a risky bet for France,” he told Al Jazeera.
Lebanon ‘counts on making a free decision’
The French president also spoke with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, on November 10.
Macron stressed “the importance of preserving the stability, independence and security of Lebanon and French support for the Lebanese people,” according to a statement put out by the Elysee.
He also met with Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, in Paris on Tuesday.
During a press conference at the Lebanese embassy in Paris, Bassil thanked Macron for “the initiative he is undertaking for Lebanon in the face of an exceptional situation,” French-language Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Le Jour reported.
Bassil said, however, that Lebanon “must decide on its internal and external politics” and “counts on making a free decision”.
A day later, Macron offered Hariri and his family to come spend a few days in Paris, but specified that the invitation was not an offer of political exile.
On Thursday, Hariri accepted the invitation to visit France.
Hariri family ties to France
The Hariri family, which holds French citizenship, has longstanding ties to the French political class.
Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, was a close friend of former French President Jacques Chirac.
When he resigned from politics in 2007, Chirac considered moving into a Paris apartment owned by the Hariri family, Reuters reported at the time.
The French government, meanwhile, has maintained close ties to Saad Hariri, explained Eric Verdeil, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris.
While France has traditionally kept a balanced approach to Lebanese internal politics – often working as a facilitator between various factions – it has been closer to the Hariri-led March 14 camp, which includes Lebanese-Christian political groups.
“It’s clear that the political class [in France] and successive French governments saw in Saad Hariri a politician whom they could support and that they strongly supported him for several years,” Verdeil said.
Nonetheless, the French “try to be in a position to talk to everyone,” Verdeil said.
Hariri visited Macron at the Elysee in September and said during his visit that “relations between France and Lebanon are excellent”.
Yet despite their close relationship to Hariri, his resignation came as a shock to French leaders.
“They were very surprised by this resignation that was unexpected and obviously they weren’t consulted,” Verdeil said.
If Hariri does not eventually return to Lebanon, France will still maintain close ties to the country in order to maintain its own interests in the region, according to Malsagne.
“Franco-Lebanese relations are not confined to the men in power,” he told Al Jazeera.
Since France closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, Lebanon has served as “an observation post” for France to monitor what’s happening in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, he explained.
France has a long history of mediation in Lebanese political crises, Malsagne said, and its involvement today does not come as a surprise.
Joe Macaron, a resident analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC research organisation, said that Hariri is France’s major Sunni ally in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.
It is in France’s interests “to make sure that Saad Hariri remains a player in Lebanon’s politics,” Macaron told Al Jazeera.
“They have good relations with a lot of Lebanese leaders, but if Hariri doesn’t return to power, whoever replaces him won’t have the same connection that the Hariri family has [had] with France over the years,” Macaron said.
France may be better suited to intervene in the current situation than other countries, Macaron added.
“They are one of the few that are able to talk to everyone and be accepted by everyone. They are less controversial than other regional and international players at this point,” he said.
But according to Malsagne, “the main weaknesses of French diplomacy remain its weak influence on Lebanese politics, [which is] essentially piloted today from Tehran and Riyadh”.