France’s Macron returns to Beirut to press for reforms

French president to push Lebanon’s politicians to enact reforms demanded by donors before releasing financial aid.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits Lebanon
French President Emmanuel Macron is scheduled to meet Lebanon's top officials on Tuesday to follow up on their progress on planned reforms [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

French President Emmanuel Macron has arrived in Lebanon for his second visit since a massive explosion at the capital’s port earlier this month shook the country and renewed persistent calls for political change.

His arrival in Beirut on Monday evening for a two-day visit came hours after Lebanese leaders named diplomat Mustapha Adib as the new prime minister-designate, tasking him with forming a government in the wake of the previous administration’s resignation following the August 4 explosion.

The explosion that ripped through Beirut killed at least 190 people, wounded thousands and caused widespread damage that left hundreds of thousands of people without a home.

Macron has been in direct contact with Lebanese officials since his first visit two days after the explosion, urging ossified politicians to come to a political understanding to pass through sweeping reforms and halt decades of corruption and mismanagement, which led the country into its deepest-ever economic crisis.

On Monday, the French president was greeted by his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, at Beirut airport. He is also due to pay a visit to legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz later on Monday.

Macron addressed the Lebanese in a tweet in Arabic saying he had returned as promised to “work together to create necessary conditions for reconstruction and stability”.

During his visit, Macron is expected to push politicians to enact reforms that international donors have demanded before they release financial support.

Western countries see a resumption of stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as reforms to the electricity and financial sectors, as key conditions for providing large-scale financial assistance.

Government formation

Senior Lebanese officials said Macron’s mediation was essential in securing agreement on a new prime minister in the 48 hours before a deadlock was broken and a consensus emerged on Adib, the former ambassador to Germany. 

“The opportunity for our country is small and the mission I have accepted is based on all the political forces acknowledging that,” said Adib, who won the support of nearly Lebanon’s all main parties in consultations hosted by Aoun.

He called for the formation of a government of competent specialists in record time, an immediate start to reforms and a deal with the IMF. In the past, forming governments has often taken months.

The World Bank on Monday estimated the explosion caused between $3.2bn and $4.6bn in physical damage, mostly to the transport sector, housing and cultural sites, and incurred an additional $2.9bn to $3.2bn in losses to economic output.

A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
A general view shows the damage at the site of the explosion in Beirut’s port area [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

The organisation estimated Lebanon’s immediate needs until the end of 2020 at between $605m and $760m, including for cash assistance, housing, and support for businesses. 

Like his predecessor Hassan Diab, who was named by a narrower margin by the country’s establishment following unprecedented anti-government protests that toppled a government last year, 48-year-old Adib is little known to the public. 

Analysts said Diab was unable to push through reforms because of high-level political meddling that is common in Lebanon, a country where important decisions are traditionally made between the handful of ruling sectarian leaders rather than governments. 

“We know there are political forces behind these governments that don’t necessarily align with the governments that they appoint, and that makes it difficult to have a programme and solutions to these complicated problems,” Mike Azar, a senior financial adviser, told Al Jazeera.

He noted Diab’s government had faltered because it did not have a clear plan for how to address the country’s challenges, and included a “hodge-podge of different people with different views”, which led to chronic dysfunction. 

Macron is also in Beirut for the centennial anniversary of the creation of Greater Lebanon, declared by colonial France in 1920, after World War I. Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies