French foreign minister warns Lebanon risks ‘disappearance’ after Beirut explosion

France and other western nations call for far-reaching political and financial reforms in the country

TOPSHOT - An aerial view taken on August 26, 2020, shows the port of Beirut with the grain silo in the foreground and surrounding neighbourhoods, devastated in the August 4 massive explosion that caused severe damage across swathes of the Lebanese capital, killed at least 181 people, injured more than 6,500 and left scores of people homeless. / AFP / -
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Lebanon’s political and economic crisis is so profound that the nation risks total collapse, France’s foreign minister has warned ahead of a second visit by French President Emmanuel Macron next week.

Mr Macron, the first world leader to visit Beirut after the devastating explosion earlier this month, reprimanded Lebanese leaders and called for the enactment of economic and political reforms that he said France had advocated for years.

The blast in Beirut port that killed at least 180 and injured around 6,000 was seen as a symptom of widespread corruption and mismanagement that had already pushed the country into financial crisis.

It was caused when 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate ignited after a fire started in the warehouse where it had been stored for six years without safety measures.

Entire neighbourhoods were pulverised when the chemicals detonated with what explosives experts described as the power of a small nuclear weapon.

In the wake of the devastation, protesters have raged against Lebanon’s political elite in anti-government rallies. An investigation published yesterday by Human Rights Watch said Lebanese security forces had responded with "excessive and, at times, lethal force", firing live ammunition, metal pellets and rubber bullets. The finding was denied by the Internal Security Forces, the Lebanese Army and police.

"This country is on the brink," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on RTL radio, citing growing poverty, unemployment and inflation. "The risk today is the disappearance of Lebanon," he said, if it did not urgently form a government and institute reforms.

Mr Le Drian was reiterating the French position, broadly supported by the international community, that funds would not come without institutional change.

"We will not sign a blank check for a government that does not implement reforms," he said.

His comments were made amid reports that the administration in Paris has created a roadmap for Lebanon advocating far-reaching reforms to avert economic disaster.

The details of Paris’s desired path for Lebanon, a former French protectorate, have been outlined in a two-page paper seen by Reuters.

The document was delivered to Beirut by France’s ambassador to the country, a Lebanese political source has said. Mr Macron’s office has denied that the paper was handed over to Lebanese parties.

According to the news agency, the measures proposed an audit of the central bank, appointment of an interim government capable of enacting urgent reforms, and early legislative elections within a year.

“The priority must go to the rapid formation of a government, to avoid a power vacuum which will leave Lebanon to sink further into the crisis,” the French document reads.

It outlines how four distinct crises require immediate action: humanitarian aid, which includes the response to the coronavirus pandemic, reconstruction, political and economic reforms, and early elections within a year.

Paris is also calling for an immediate and full audit of state finances and the central bank.

The French roadmap would also increase Paris’s involvement in the country. France, under the plans, would play a major role in rebuilding Beirut port, bolster healthcare, send teams from its treasury and central bank to support the financial audit, and help organise early parliamentary voting, along with the European Union.