9 Aug, 2020
French President Emmanuel Macron has rallied a host of international donors to support Lebanon, and promised that the country’s future “is being decided now.” The French leader, it seems, will be the one making the decisions.
More than 150 people lie dead, with thousands injured following a devastating chemical explosion in the capital of Beirut on Tuesday. As public anger toward the Lebanese government grows, two ministers and at least seven Members of Parliament have resigned — and crowds of enraged protesters have stormed government buildings and demanded the wholesale resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.
Into that fray stepped French President Emmanuel Macron. Leading a conference of aid donors on Sunday, Marcon explained his lofty goals. “Lebanon’s future is being decided now,” he stated, adding that aid money would be distributed “swiftly and efficiently” and would be accompanied by an impartial investigation into the explosion, which officials say took place when a 2,700 ton stash of ammonium nitrate caught fire.
Lebanon's future is being decided now, by Lebanon itself, and with its international partners at its side.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 9, 2020
Macron also took it upon himself to call on the government to heed the demands of the Beirut protesters, which at the moment would involve relinquishing its power.
Lebanon’s future, he said, would be decided “by Lebanon itself.” Yet, the French leader seemingly saw fit to insert himself into that decision-making process, even as the dust in Beirut was still settling last week.
Arriving in the blast-stricken city on Thursday, Macron spoke to protesters in the street, who chanted for “revolution.” As the crowd pleaded with the French president for help, Macron made a clear promise: that he would propose a new “political deal” to the country’s embattled leaders. Should the deal fall through, he said he would return in September to take “political responsibility” himself.
Macron mobbed in Beirut. Down with the regime, locals chanted, and called for Revolution while declaiming Lebanon's President Aoun. pic.twitter.com/4ntkZToUFj
— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervilletv) August 6, 2020
Macron’s eagerness for change went further than vague statements. As well as demanding a new “political order” in Lebanon, he called for the country’s central bank to be audited, and for the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and United Nations to oversee the country’s recovery.
The French president’s interest in nation-building is not without precedent. Lebanon was once a protectorate of France, brought under French mandate following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, before independence was granted after the Second World War. However, Macron’s invocation of the “international community” and the world’s supranational financial institutions indicates that he sees Lebanon’s future not quite as a French vassal, but as a client of the liberal world order, which he has vocally championed before.
Macron’s bid to bring Lebanon into the fold of the West was likely given urgency by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call earlier this year for the country to “look east” and turn to China, not the IMF, for economic relief. “Chinese companies are ready to inject money into this country,” he said in June. “I say to the Lebanese people, there are alternatives [to the West],” he added.
Amid a potential geopolitical shift, the US has thrown its weight behind the protesters too. President Donald Trump on Sunday “acknowledged the legitimate calls of peaceful protesters for transparency, reform, and accountability,” per a White House statement.
Change may come quickly to Lebanon. The world leaders who took part in Sunday’s conference pledged to deliver “major resources” to Lebanon as quickly as possible, adding that this aid would be delivered “directly” to people in need. With the government seemingly cut out of aid distribution, it remains to be seen how long Diab, or President Michel Aoun, will be able to hold on to power.
With Macron attempting to take the driver’s seat, some commentators were quick to notice the irony of the French president lending his support to anti-government protests in a country thousands of kilometers away, after his own security services gassed, clubbed and maimed ‘Yellow Vests’ demonstrators at home every weekend for more than a year.
I can't comment on #Macron's visit to #Lebanon from a Lebanese perspective, but as a French citizen, it's interesting to see Macron celebrating Lebanese citizens protesting their government while at home riot cops are sent to tear gas French citizens protesting his own.
— Rim-Sarah Alouane (@RimSarah) August 6, 2020
Shortly after the donors announced their latest aid pledges – amounting to nearly 253 million euros ($298 million), protesters descended on Beirut’s Parliament Square where they hurled rocks at police and attempted to tear down barricades blocking off the government building. Police responded with tear gas canisters, and extinguished fires set by protesters.