Last week in the streets of Beirut, French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted by the Lebanese like a messiah. In the social media of the crisis-ridden country, some people are longing to go back to colonial times, as the Levantine country was under French mandate. This is how low the country’s elites have sunk, regardless of religion or political colour.
Lebanon’s President Aoun – from hero to villain?
Even the president was affected by this: Michel Aoun was once a celebrated general who fought against both the Israeli and Syrian armies and ended up having to flee into French exile for 15 years. Some demonstrators in the ruins of Beirut have already wanted to see him on the gallows.
France will play a key role in the reconstruction of the destroyed city, no doubt about it. Lebanese Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm has now asked for French experts to be appointed to the committee investigating the disaster – “one must give guarantees to those who doubt,” she told the Parisian newspaper Le Monde earlier this week.
In Syria, France has marginalised itself
However, France does not currently play a key role in the Syrian war and civil war. Macron’s predecessors Sarkozy and Hollande had worked to overthrow the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, especially after Syria’s youth also revolted against the dictator in the Arab Spring 2011.
Not much of that remained, but at least the militia of the Democratic Forces of Syria, which Macron praised in his Economist interview of November 7, 2019, as a “partner in the fight against the Islamic state”. The DFS did indeed play an important role in the reconquest of the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqa.
Macron, however, is also likely to have disappointed this vowed partner, since the president no longer declares Assad’s overthrow as the indispensable first step towards a solution of the Syrian war.
Macron’s Beirut bath in the crowd brings back France
With his Beirut bath in the crowd, Macron has now brought France back to the Middle Eastern scene. And that right in the limelight. Right after taking office in 2017, the French president had already once intervened in Lebanese domestic politics. At that time, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had resigned in Saudi Arabia, apparently under Saudi pressure – which, however, remained null and void, since according to the constitution he should have explained this personally to President Aoun. The latter therefore did not accept the resignation. A few days later, Macron invited Hariri, more prisoner than guest in his hotel in Riyadh, to France. From there the Prime Minister travelled to Beirut – and withdrew his resignation.
Key moment between Paris and Beirut was the murder of Hariri
Macron’s predecessor Jacques Chirac was a close friend of Saad Hariri ‘s father. Rafiq al-Hariri was killed in a bomb attack in early 2005, presumably by the Syrian secret service. Chirac called the Lebanese “a brother” and threatened in his memoirs in 2011, “I will not let this crime go unpunished”.
Macron has no Hariri as a partner in Lebanon today. And he will do well not to rely on anyone among the country’s elites, they are all so discredited by the people.
“French politics is ossifying and losing its nuances,” is how Middle East scholar Manon-Nour Tannous describes the key moment of 2005. The coming weeks will show whether Macron’s committed performance can bring French Middle East policy out of its paralysis.