French foreign minister announces aid for Lebanese schools but nothing for government without reforms

Jean-Yves Le Drian wraps up visit to Lebanon with warning that country is 'on the verge of an abyss'

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talks to reporters at a school in Mechref on July 24, 2020, at the end of a two-day visit to Lebanon. Reuters
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talks to reporters at a school in Mechref on July 24, 2020, at the end of a two-day visit to Lebanon. Reuters

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian ended a two-day visit to Lebanon on Friday by announcing more than €15 million (Dh64m) in aid for schools after delivering a firm message to the country's leaders: they will see no economic assistance without implementing long-delayed reforms to increase transparency and fight corruption.

“I have decided that Lebanon would benefit from a special effort with means that are up to the level of our historic relations and the position of French education in this country,” Mr Le Drian said during a visit to Carmel Saint Joseph school in Mechref, south of Beirut.

“In total, nearly €15 million are now at the disposal of the Lebanese education sector, which is equivalent to one tenth of the financial commitments that we implemented in the entire world,” he said.

“In parallel, €2m have been rallied for Christian schools in the region, and because of their importance, a large part of this sum will go to those of Lebanon.”

Sources at the French Embassy in Beirut explained that the €15m was part of a global emergency aid package managed by the Agency for French Education Abroad, which operates under the umbrella of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The package supports schools that have been approved by the French Education Ministry throughout the world.

The aid will be distributed in various ways, including interest-free loans and emergency scholarships to non-French families.

The €2m fund for Christian schools in the region was approved earlier this year. Half the fund has been donated by the French state and the other half by the French NGO L’Oeuvre d’Orient which serves Christian French-speaking schools, including those that do not run programmes approved by the French government.

The education sector in Lebanon has a strong relationship with former colonial power France. About 60,000 Lebanese students study in schools certified by the French government – the highest of any foreign country, said a source at the French embassy. Morocco comes second with 37,000 students among a population that is over seven times bigger than Lebanon’s.

Speaking to journalists after his speech at the school, Mr Le Drian said that he came to Lebanon with two messages: firm demands regarding the implementation of reforms, and solidarity with the education sector. “This country is on the verge of an abyss. If actions are not taken, it could become a country adrift,” he said.

Lebanon has been suffering its worst economic crisis for the past year, causing soaring inflation, job losses and a massive devaluation of its local currency on the black market.

Authorities have requested a bailout from the IMF but negotiations have stalled as local politicians bicker over how to solve the crisis.

Mr Le Drian said he had told President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Hassan Diab that it was essential to implement reforms.

“First, wrap up negotiations with the IMF, which means going forward with an audit of the Lebanese central bank and taking the necessary measures regarding capital controls,” he said.

Recent reports by the Financial Times and Reuters said that the central bank governor inflated the institution's assets by over $6 billion in 2018 to help prop up the economy.

Lebanese banks have implemented capital controls since last November, several months into a dollar cash crisis. But these measures have not been rendered legal either by Parliament or the government. The IMF has requested that they be formally organised, but local reports suggest that Mr Berri is opposed to this.

Mr Le Drian said Lebanon also needed to reform its electricity sector, which does not produce enough power to satisfy demand but also eats up between $1bn and $2bn a year in state subsidies. Finally, Mr Le Drian said that Lebanon needed to increase the transparency of procurement contracts and of its justice system.

“I heard President Michel Aoun make strong statements regarding his will to fight corruption and I hope that all actors will do the same,” he said.

On Wednesday, President Aoun told Mr Le Drian that there had been “difficulties and obstacles [in] the fight against corruption because of the presence of many people involved in it who exert strong pressures to stop [the fight]”.

Updated: July 24, 2020 08:56 PM

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