BEIRUT: France and the United States Thursday called on rival Lebanese politicians to form a new government to deliver reforms and provide the findings of the investigations into the Beirut Port explosion, in a statement intended to show unity between the two allies.
Under the administration of former US President Donald Trump, Paris and Washington had differences over their foreign policy on Lebanon. While Trump backed a French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, he opposed efforts to include the Iran-backed Hezbollah group which Washington brands a terrorist group.
The statement was signed by both French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, newly appointed by President Joe Biden who took office on Jan. 22, Reuters reported from Paris.
"The commemoration of six months of this tragic event underscores the urgent and vital need for Lebanese officials to finally implement their commitment to form a credible and effective government and to work toward carrying out the necessary reforms," they said.
Earlier Thursday, an official Lebanese source said French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned visit to Lebanon would not take place before Lebanese leaders agreed on the formation of a new government to enact reforms outlined in the French initiative to rescue the crises-hit country.
“President Macron’s visit to Lebanon will not take place before political leaders agree on the formation of a ‘mission’ government to implement a series of structural reforms contained in the French initiative,” the official source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.
“What will Macron do in Beirut if there is no fully functioning government? Despite repeated French calls for the swift formation of a Cabinet, Macron’s visit to Lebanon will wait until a new Lebanese government is set up,” the source said.
Macron last week announced he planned to make a third visit to Lebanon, saying that France's road map for resolving the deepening Lebanese crisis was still on the table.
Apparently encouraged by potential US support to revive the stalled French initiative, Macron is also seeking to enlist the help of Saudi Arabia, which wields great influence in Lebanon, in the formation of a new government after having secured the backing of Egypt, the source said.
“Ongoing contacts to break the deadlock in the already-stalled Cabinet formation process have so far failed to produce any tangible results,” the source said. He added that attention has shifted to Macron’s next move amid reports that he would be visiting Saudi Arabia in the next two weeks to rally the kingdom’s support for the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
“The report about Macron’s possible visit to Saudi Arabia is an important indication given the fact that the kingdom can play an essential role in the Lebanese government formation process,” the source said.
Macron’s efforts to rescue Lebanon received a big boost Wednesday from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who called on feuding Lebanese leaders to resolve their differences and accelerate the formation of an “independent” government capable of confronting challenges in Lebanon. Sisi made the appeal during a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in Cairo.
The formation of a “mission” government to deliver reforms deemed essential to unlocking billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse is the first step in the French initiative.
Also Thursday, France’s Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo criticized rival Lebanese leaders for failing to agree on the formation of a new government as they had pledged to Macron during his second visit to Beirut.
In a televised speech addressing the Lebanese on the sixth month anniversary of the Beirut Port blast, Grillo said: “My friends the Lebanese, six months ago, the terrible Beirut Port explosion turned your lives upside down, hitting Beirut in the heart, along with all of Lebanon. France quickly mobilized its energies along with the French because it carries Lebanon in its heart. Only two days after the tragedy, the [French] president was by your side.”
Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut two days after the massive Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port, damaged half of the capital, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.
With support from the United Nations, Grillo said, France mobilized the international community and organized on Aug. 9 and Dec. 2 two international conferences to drum up essential emergency assistance to Lebanon.
“Today, amid the general lockdown in Lebanon [to stem the coronavirus pandemic] and the tragic health situation, France is still standing by your side. The reconstruction aid is continuing. In the next few days, I will sign [an agreement] to support the rebuilding of the government Karantina hospital,” she said.
“Six months after the [port] blast, it is unacceptable for Lebanon to remain without a government to address the health and social crisis and begin implementing the structural reforms essential for the country’s recovery and stability. The commitments that were made before the [French] president are still ink on paper,” the French ambassador said.
Assuring the Lebanese that France would remain by their side to help them overcome the crises, Grillo addressed Lebanese leaders: “To all Lebanese leaders, I would like to say to you again that your individual and collective responsibility is essential. Show the necessary courage to work and France will help you.”
Hariri's efforts since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement reforms have hit a dead end following a deepening rift with President Michel Aoun over the distribution of key ministries and naming of Christian ministers.