French envoy Le Drian meets top Lebanese politicians in push to end presidential vacancy

Speaker Nabih Berri has pushed for a week-long dialogue session

French special envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, meeting Lebanon's Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, in Beirut. AFP
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French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian held a series of meetings with Lebanese political leaders in Beirut on Wednesday in the latest bid to end the country's year-and-a-half-long presidential vacuum.

He first met Prime Minister Najib Mikati and they discussed the efforts of five powerful countries to elect a successor to Michel Aoun, whose presidential term expired in October 2022.

France is part of the so-called quintet for Lebanon, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the US. They have repeatedly urged MPs to elect a new president, with their respective ambassadors reputedly holding meetings with senior Lebanese leaders in an effort to break the deadlock.

Mr Le Drian also met with long-time parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who has pushed for a week-long dialogue session over the presidency issue, followed by open election sessions until a winner is found. He again floated the initiative with Mr Le Drian in their meeting on Wednesday morning, according to Mr Berri’s press office.

In the 12 election sessions – the most recent of which was last summer – no candidate has garnered the required amount of backing in a deeply divided parliament where no faction has a majority.

Lebanese armed group and political party Hezbollah has repeatedly backed Suleiman Frangieh, who also met with Mr Le Drian. Hezbollah's leader in parliament, MP Mohammad Raad, met the French envoy, although the group did not initially put out a statement.

A meeting is also expected with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on Wednesday evening. The LF are Hezbollah's largest opponent in parliament.

Mr Le Drian was appointed last June as President Emmanuel Macron's envoy to Lebanon.

In Lebanon's unique confessional system, the role of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be Shiite.

Mr Le Drian's visit comes at a particularly precarious time in Lebanon as the conflict in the south between Hezbollah and Israel risks turning into a full-blown conflict. Almost daily exchanges of fire have taken place since October 8, increasing in scope and intensity.

Hezbollah says it is carrying out the attacks in support of its embattled Palestinian ally Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Iran-backed Shiite movement says it will not halt its attacks until Israel ceases its siege on Gaza, which has led to more than 36,100 Palestinians being killed.

In his most recent visit in November, Mr Le Drian expanded the scope of his consultations to include the UN Resolution 1701, which was adopted to end the 2006 war between neighbouring Israel and Hezbollah.

However, initial details suggest Mr Le Drian largely focused on Lebanon's presidential vacuum in his current visit.

Normally the Council of Ministers would take on presidential duties, but Mr Mikati's cabinet has caretaker status and is thus severely stripped of powers.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 2:18 PM