In Lebanon, President Macron of France Demands Change
In Lebanon, President Macron of France Demands Change
BEIRUT — President Emmanuel Macron of France met with representatives of Lebanon’s political factions on Tuesday, urging them to back an overhaul of government and measures to curb pervasive corruption, and warning that they were otherwise at risk of sanctions on their personal wealth, according to officials familiar with the talks.
Mr. Macron’s visit this week is his second since a blast tore through parts of Beirut on Aug. 4, killing more than 180 people, wounding 6,000 and causing an estimated $8 billion in damage. The blast, which officials have said was caused by a neglected store of ammonium nitrate, became the latest symbol of mismanagement and corruption in Lebanon, forcing the government to resign last month.
If Mr. Macron cannot secure a commitment to a program including anticorruption measures and an audit of the central bank and banking sector, he has warned that the international community may impose sanctions on Lebanon’s political leadership, the officials familiar with the talks said. Mr. Macron did not specify what those sanctions would be.
Those leaders have controlled the government through a sectarian power-sharing agreement that has been in place for the three decades since Lebanon’s civil war, a long and brutal conflict in which most of them participated.
“It’s the last chance for this system,” Mr. Macron said in an interview with Politico on Monday, where he also raised the prospect of sanctions against the leaders of the country’s political factions.
“It’s a risky bet I’m making, I am aware of it,” he said, adding “I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital.”
Mr. Macron also toured the site of the Beirut blast and met with Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, and the former prime minister Saad Hariri, among others.
Mr. Macron leaves Lebanon on Tuesday night. The American government will add to the pressure on Lebanese politicians by sending David Schenker, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Near Eastern affairs, to Beirut on Wednesday.
By dangling the threat of sanctions, Mr. Macron is hoping to secure a commitment to economic and political measures that underpinned discussions with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout early this year. Those talks stalled over several issues, including the government’s rejection of a forensic audit of the central bank.
Many within Lebanon’s opposition — a leaderless array of citizen activists, retired generals, disillusioned civil servants and others — want the international community to punish the country’s leaders and start the process of a state asset recovery to replenish its empty coffers. They accuse politicians of siphoning off billions of dollars in taxes paid by citizens and past aid from the international community, bankrupting the state.
“The U.S. and France are playing good cop, bad cop,” said Lina Khatib, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the British foreign-policy institute Chatham House. “State asset recovery will be a highlight of what these sanctions will cover, and that affects most of Lebanon’s leaders, regardless of political affiliation or sect,” she said.
But Ms. Khatib is skeptical that sanctions will be implemented even if reform efforts fail, adding that Lebanese politicians could pursue sectarian strife to persuade the international community to back off.
“No one wants to rock the boat in Lebanon,” she said. “France and the U.S. fear that rocking the boat will unleash uncertainty and they would rather stick to the devil they know.”
For Mr. Macron’s visit to be successful, Ms. Khatib said, the French president must secure a monitoring mechanism to oversee public institutions and ensure they are implementing agreed measures.
“It’s become clear state institutions on their own can’t be trusted to abide by accountability and transparency,” she said, adding that Lebanon’s unions and the international community should be involved in the oversight process.
Lebanon’s economic crisis spiraled out of control last fall, when banks froze depositors’ accounts, hoping to stem the outflow of funds. The local currency also collapsed, losing as much as 80 percent of its value.
Since the chemical explosion in August, international aid is needed more than ever. Many Lebanese citizens are trying to leave the country, with Google searches for information on how to emigrate hitting a 10-year peak in the weeks since the tragedy.
Since the blast, Mr. Macron has become a celebrity in Lebanon, which is a former French mandate. He visited a Beirut neighborhood devastated in the explosion before Lebanon’s leading politicians did, and called for the fast-tracking of humanitarian aid.
But opposition activists are growing skeptical of the French president. They worry he may be trying to cut a deal with the same political figures they say have bankrupted the state and fear that he will be tricked into unlocking billions of dollars of aid without real change to the system.
While a new prime minister, Mustafa Adib, was named on Monday, activists rejected the appointment, saying he was too close to the governing class. Mr. Adib previously served as Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany and was a close aide to Najib Mikati, a former prime minister who is a hated figure among the opposition. When Mr. Adib tried to tour Beirut’s devastation on Monday, he was heckled by civilians.
“Our children died!” one onlooker yelled at the new prime minister.
“The people who elected him are criminals!” yelled another.
Protests were planned for Monday afternoon in Beirut to pressure Mr. Macron to stop working with Lebanon’s politicians and instead engage with the opposition.
“We will continue to openly confront the criminal system,” tweeted one opposition group, Li Haqqi, a name that translates as For My Right.