Deep political and economic turmoil has engulfed Lebanon for over a year now. The country’s political class has failed to form a credible and stable government and undertake reforms necessary to win back popular confidence in the system. This has resulted in growing economic distress for the common Lebanese citizens, who have taken to the streets against their corrupt politicians. The Beirut blast in early August this year, which killed more than 190 people and displaced thousands, has compounded the Lebanese crisis. Under the circumstances, France, Lebanon’s old colonial master (Lebanon was a French mandate, 1919-1943), has found in a characteristic colonial way, an opportunity to seek greater control over the ruling establishment in Lebanon, so as to mould the country’s policies to suit its own political and economic ambitions.
The Beirut port blast and its aftermath further exposed the inefficiency of the political establishment in Lebanon. The incident also brought back, after a break of months, the popular anti-government protests taking place in the crisis-ridden country. Under enormous pressure, Lebanese prime minister Hasan Diab was forced to resign, leading to a political vacuum. Diab had himself come to power after a long political gap following the resignation of his predecessor, Saad Hariri, in October last year.
Following the August 4 blast, French president Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon twice. However, a complete disregard for the political complexities of the country and a colonial approach were evident during his visits and on subsequent occasions. Macron even went to the extent of instructing the Lebanese administration to deliver his tailored reform program within a specified deadline.
On his first visit to Lebanon after the blast in August, Macron spoke of the need for economic and political reforms in the country. In return, he promised to help the Lebanese bid to obtain USD 20 billion in foreign financial aid, half of which is expected from the IMF and the remaining from other donor countries and agencies. It is estimated that an additional USD 5 billion is required to rebuild Beirut post the explosion.
Initially, Macron’s posturing on the issue was centered on supposedly relaying the demands of the Lebanese protesters. However, during his second visit, on September 1, Macron unveiled a draft “reform program” for Lebanon, claiming that it was crucial for the country’s survival. His foreign minister, Yves Le Drian, even said that Lebanon would disappear if it did not undertake these critical reforms. A month later, Macron expressed apprehensions of a possible threat of another “civil war” taking place in the country in case the proposed reforms are not implemented.
Disregarding Lebanese sovereignty, Macron openly called for a technocratic government to be installed, which can implement the kind of economic reforms proposed by him and the IMF.
On September 27, after the resignation of prime minister-designate Moustapha Adib and the failure to form a technocratic government, Macron expressed great disappointment. He even remarked that he is “ashamed” at the political leadership in Lebanon, and accused them of committing “collective treason.”
Rania Masri, a Lebanese citizen and former director of the Southern Peace Research and Education Center at the Institute for Southern Studies in the US, sees clandestine motives behind the calls for a technocratic government. According to her, “Politics is a decision on how resources are distributed. So, anyone calling for an expert/technocrat government is either foolish, or wants to hide certain decisions under the mantle of experience.”
Macron has also criticized the role of Hezbollah, saying it cannot be a political and military force at the same time. This invited a retort from Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, who said on September 29 that France should not try to act as “a guardian of the country.”
Neoliberal and Imperialist ambitions
The reforms proposed by the French are similar to those demanded by the IMF for greater deregulation and further liberalization of the Lebanese economy. These changes reek of the long-term regional policy of the French, which is pro-Israel and anti-Hezbollah.
Past governments in Lebanon could not agree to carry forward such “reform” proposals, leading to the breakdown of the dialogue with the IMF in June this year. Now that the crisis in Lebanon has multiplied in the context of Beirut blast and the COVID-19 related lockdowns, the French view the situation opportunistically and are trying to push the Lebanese leadership into accepting these reforms.
While a vague proposal for social and financial support to Lebanon has been made, the main concerns regarding the reforms are too stark to ignore. The tone in which these proposals are being suggested also reveals France’s imperial arrogance. The draft proposal demands the Lebanese parliament’s approval for measures requested by lenders (IMF and other western countries), such instituting “capital control laws” within one month and carrying out a full audit of the country’s central bank, in order to secure aid.
The French proposal also requires the Lebanese government to abandon some of its crucial economic projects. It asks to raise prices of electricity within three months and increase privatization.
Lebanon is already one of the most deregulated economies in the world, and has suffered under a decade-long austerity program. The country has a high inflation rate and lack of liquidity. Half the population is currently living under the official poverty line, with a steep decline in real incomes due to the falling value of the Lebanese currency. In this context, further privatization and rise in the prices of essential services such as electricity will severely increase people’s distress.
The French proposals have political instructions as well, and ask the new government to put “control gates” at all of Lebanon’s borders. While being packaged as a way to fight smuggling, the move is largely aimed at controlling the flow of weapons from outside the country to Hezbollah. This is one of the main concerns expressed by regional hegemons and traditional French allies like the US and Israel, who see Hezbollah as a threat to their regional ambitions.
France has also prescribed conducting early elections in Lebanon. The last elections in the country were held in May 2018, and the next are due in 2022. Given the year-long popular protests against the Hezbollah-backed governments in the country, fresh elections are expected to reduce Hezbollah’s strength in the parliament.
While acknowledging that Hezbollah and the sectarian system of power sharing have caused certain problems in the country, Masry argues that the Lebanese people should not deceive themselves by accepting Macron’s proposals as beneficial. According to her, “no foreign power is expected, without exception, to work for another country’s” welfare. French actions are rooted in its larger regional and global calculations and “were quite reminiscent of colonialism.” She hopes that such interventionist policies will be identified and opposed by the Lebanese.