French envoy arrives in Beirut to try to resolve presidential vacuum

Jean-Yves Le Drian's third trip to Lebanon is marked by 'new dynamics', a Paris representative told The National

Jean-Yves Le Drian, special envoy for Lebanon and a former French foreign minister, arrived in Beirut on Monday. EPA
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French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in Beirut on Monday evening for his third meeting with Lebanese officials in a bid to resolve the country's leadership vacuum.

The former French foreign minister plans to meet caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati, army chief Joseph Aoun and patriarch Bechara Al Rai.

He will also meet party leaders across the political spectrum, including Amal leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Free Patriotic Movement chief Gebran Bassil, Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

Lebanon has been without a president for nine months amid an unprecedented economic crisis that started in 2019.

France is part of the so-called Quintet Committee along with Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US, which have united their efforts to accelerate the nomination of a new Lebanese head of state.

In Lebanon, the election of a president traditionally follows backdoor negotiations between political parties, with rival sides trying to secure enough parliamentary support for either a two-thirds majority vote in the first round or a simple majority in the second.

Despite 12 attempts, the parliament has been unable to reach a consensus on a successor for former president Michel Aoun.

The deadlock persists amid deep divisions between supporters of Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed militia, and anti-Hezbollah parties, including parliament’s largest, the Christian-led Lebanese Forces.

However, there have “developments under international pressure”, a French diplomat told The National, which could potentially open a window of opportunity.

The source said Mr Le Drian's visit coincides with “a new dynamic” in the country.

The source cited Mr Berri's new dialogue initiative. The leader of the Amal Movement, a Shia party aligned with Hezbollah, called on August 31 for Lebanese parties to participate in seven days of parliamentary dialogue before proceeding to open-ended electoral sessions to select a new president.

“I’m waiting for the visit of French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian, and I expect that my initiative will be merged with Le Drian’s initiative to reach the aspired positive result through dialogue and consensus,” Mr Berri told Lebanese newspaper Al Liwaa on Monday.

The source added that the FPM and its long time ally Hezbollah have rekindled a “dialogue momentum” following a months-long quarrel stemming from a disagreement over Hezbollah and Amal's preferred candidate, Sleiman Frangieh, who is strongly opposed by Mr Bassil.

Potential candidates

Two names are currently in circulation as potential candidates for the presidency: Christian Marada party leader Sleiman Frangieh and Joseph Aoun

France's formula, which involved appointing Mr Frangieh as the head of state, and the choice of a prime minister from the opposing camp, is no longer on the table.

“France's role is to facilitate dialogue between the different stakeholders, not to prescribe or endorse a specific name,” the French diplomatic source said.

“Our efforts are based on the written consultations we have conducted with MPs.”

In August, Mr Le Drian sent a formal letter to MPs asking what “priority projects” should take centre stage for the next president and what “qualities and skills” are required for the position.

The diplomatic source stressed the urgency of the situation, despite a facade of stabilisation maintained by the influx of dollars brought in by foreign visitors in the summer.

The government has been functioning in a caretaker capacity since May, with limited authority, while the parliament has shifted into an electoral role following the conclusion of Michel Aoun's term, and is solely tasked with selecting a successor.

Lebanon's president is responsible for signing bills, appointing the prime minister and approving the composition of the cabinet.

“Without a president, institutions are not operational, there is no fully functioning government or parliament, essentially meaning no reforms are possible,” the source told The National.

In July, the Quintet Committee met in Qatar to accelerate the election process, and said they had “discussed concrete options” to address “those blocking progress” in the process.

Updated: September 13, 2023, 12:00 PM