Lebanon's Mikati needs to earn trust for French support on first foreign visit

Macron has grown wise to deceptions of Lebanon's political elite, analysts say

It has been a tried and tested approach in recent years that when times are tough, Lebanon’s leaders turn to Paris.

It was the first destination of former prime minister Saad Hariri following his forced resignation while in Riyadh in 2017.

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The French have learnt to be sceptical. They have learnt in the past year or so that Lebanon’s politicians are capable of delaying tactics and basically lying to the world community
Karim Bitar, Saint Joseph University, Beirut

In also works the other way round. After the explosion at Beirut port in the summer of 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron was on a plane within hours and walked the streets of the battered neighbourhood of Achrafieh, treading where few Lebanese politicians dared to go, and facing the fury of the crowds.

So it is of little surprise that recently confirmed Prime minister Najib Mikati has scheduled a working lunch with Mr Macron on Friday during his first foreign visit.

It will be their first one-on-one meeting, though a source close to Mr Mikati said they had been having regular phone calls.

The new prime minister travels to Paris with two priorities on his agenda: reforms demanded by the IMF that may unlock much-needed financial support for Lebanon and preparations for parliamentary elections due to be held next year.

“Mikati’s going to see how the French can provide support,” the source added. “It’s a concretisation of the relationship with the French.

“There is a lot of pressure, Paris may prove to be a bit more flexible if they think there is a possibility of progress.”

Yet if he thinks Mr Macron is going to offer up anything on a plate, he may want to think again, says Karim Bitar, a political scientist and professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

He said that while Mr Mikati and Mr Macron may be on friendly terms, the French president has grown wise to the ways of Lebanon’s political elite.

“Najib Mikati has a good, solid relationship with Macron. Macron considers he can do business with Mikati — France knows him quite well. Having said that, the government that Mikati has formed does not reflect at all the spirit that was initially the French initiative that Macron launched after the blast in August 2020,” he told The National.

“The French have learnt to be sceptical. They have learnt in the past year or so that Lebanon’s politicians are capable of delaying tactics and basically lying to the world community.

“Macron has experience of their modus operandi — he knows this kind of government is not really a government that is capable of reforming within a few months.”

One elephant in the room will be sanctions. At the end of July, the EU announced a sanctions regime aimed at corruption in Lebanon — though without naming names. France is among countries leading the EU’s calls for sanctions while also preparing unilateral measures of its own. Yet the source close to Mr Mikati said it was unlikely to be a major talking point in Paris.

“Mikati cannot influence sanctions. If the Europeans decide to apply certain sanctions, no one can influence them,” the source told The National.

Mr Bitar said Mr Macron’s position had only hardened in the 13 months since the Beirut port blast.

“The French position today is harsher than it was when Macron visited in 2020. He was initially very reluctant to impose sanctions on the political establishment — he said he didn’t feel comfortable. A year later and France has convinced many European countries that sanctions are the way to go. They are a tool that they could use.”

That influence on other European countries was no more visible than in the resolution passed last week by the European Parliament. The resolution, which passed by a landslide with cross-party support, described the situation in Lebanon as “a man-made crisis”, and stressed an urgency in sanctioning those blocking reform.

Christophe Grudler, the French MEP who spearheaded the EU Parliament's resolution, said that if Mr Mikati could prove he was serious about reform, then France was ready to support Lebanon's recovery.

“This meeting will certainly turn around two words: demands and support,” he told The National.

“The demands are those of the Lebanese population, of France and the whole international community: to finally launch important reforms in Lebanon. It is of utmost importance that public services are restored and that independent investigations are carried out, be it against corruption or the explosion of the port of Beirut. If these reforms are launched, then the international community, and France in particular, will be able to support much more the Lebanese people and the prime minister.”

Mr Bitar said that the new prime minister does not have long to prove he is serious about reforms.

“The grace period will be pretty short,” he said.

“His entire government is supposed to last until May 22 if elections are not postponed. If, by the end of the year, no important measures have been announced, this will lead France and Europe to heighten the pressure again.”

Mr Bitar said France hadn't given up on Lebanon.

“It is still ready to help financially, but they are smart enough to know the ways of the political establishment.”

Updated: September 24th 2021, 8:26 AM
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