BEIRUT: Apparently encouraged by potential US support, French President Emmanuel Macron plans to send a special envoy to Lebanon in a bid to revive the stalled French initiative to rescue the crises-ridden country and accelerate the formation of a new government to deliver reforms, an official source said Wednesday.
Hopes for reviving the French initiative soared following a statement issued by the Elysee Palace Sunday night saying that the situation in Lebanon was among topics discussed during Macron’s first phone conversation with US President Joe Biden.
Macron will be sending his special envoy, Patrick Durel, to Beirut on a mission to revive the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War, the official source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star.
Although no date has been set for the envoy’s visit, the source said Durel, Macron’s adviser for Middle East and North Africa affairs, might come to Lebanon either before or after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s visit to Paris.
“The French are making preparations for this activity [Durel’s visit] in the wake of the phone conversation between President Macron and President Biden. But the two presidents did not go into details and they left it to their aides to do so,” the source said.
During a visit to Beirut in November, Durel failed to make a breakthrough in the Cabinet deadlock. He pleaded with Lebanese leaders to hasten the Cabinet formation to carry out the reform program outlined in the French initiative.
After local mediation attempts have failed to break the Cabinet formation stalemate, now in its sixth month, attention has been shifted to France’s possible intervention to help in the formation of a new government to enact reforms.
The Elysee statement spoke of “rapprochement and readiness [between Macron and Biden] to work together for the sake of peace and stability in the Near and Middle East, particularly regarding Iran’s nuclear file and the situation in Lebanon.”
The Elysee statement coincided with reports that Hariri was preparing to visit Paris and might meet with Macron to brief him on the major hurdles he has encountered since Oct. 22 in his attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement the required reforms.
Asked whether Hariri would visit France soon after visiting Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, a source close to the premier-designate told The Daily Star: “Prime Minister Hariri has announced he will make foreign visits in order to restore Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states.”
Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the deadly Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed Beirut Port, has been spearheading international efforts to save Lebanon, a former French protectorate, from its deepest crisis in its modern history.
He presented the French initiative to Lebanon’s political leaders during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut two days after the port blast. But the initiative has remained stalled after rival Lebanese factions failed to agree on the swift formation of a “mission government” to implement a slew of economic and administrative reforms stipulated in the initiative.
In an important development obviously linked to the forthcoming French diplomatic activity in Lebanon aimed at facilitating the government formation, France called on the US under Biden to adopt a more realistic attitude toward the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to help break the political and economic impasse in Lebanon.
"There is urgency in Lebanon and we think that there are priorities that we (France and the United States) can pursue together," a French presidential official told reporters in Paris Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying Macron's first priority was putting together a viable Lebanese government.
"We don't expect a change in American attitude toward Hezbollah, but more American realism on what is possible or not, given the circumstances in Lebanon," he said, without elaborating on what Paris wanted Washington to do.
While former US President Donald Trump's administration backed Macron's initiative, it opposed efforts to include Hezbollah, that wields great influence in Lebanon and which Washington brands a terrorist group, in the next government.
It remains unclear how the Biden administration might tackle Lebanon and deal with Hezbollah which was clamped with tough US sanctions under the Trump administration.
Hezbollah officials could not be reached to comment on whether France’s request to the US to deal with more realism with Hezbollah aimed at lifting a reported US veto on the group’s participation in the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and other officials have long insisted that the group be represented in the new government, irrespective of reported US pressure on Lebanon to isolate the party.
A political source said he saw three possibilities behind France’s request to the US on dealing with Hezbollah.
“There might be a French atmosphere to set the stage for Hezbollah’s participation in the next government, or to accept publicly the group’s participation in the government,” the source told The Daily Star.
“France might be working to arrange an indirect dialogue between Hezbollah and European and other international parties despite the fact that some European states have labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” the source said.
The third possibility, the source added, “is that the French request might be the beginning for dealing with realism with Hezbollah as a prelude to planned talks with Iran because the Americans want to talk to Iran on its nuclear program.”
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
The planned moves about reviving the French initiative come as attempts by mediators, including Diab, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai and General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, have so far failed to arrange an ice-breaking meeting between President Michel Aoun and Hariri to agree on the swift formation of a salvation Cabinet to tackle the country’s crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that is posing a serious threat to Lebanon’s stability and security.
Aoun and Hariri have not met for more than a month since differences emerged between the two over a draft Cabinet lineup made up of 18 nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms the premier-designate presented to the president on Dec. 9.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s top Christian and Muslim religious leaders called for the quick formation of a new government and lashed out at political leaders, saying their differences have led Lebanon to a dead end.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday after making contacts with each other to discuss the “current tragic situation in Lebanon at the political, economic, social and health levels,” the leaders said: “At a time in which the pace of collapse in Lebanon is accelerating with all the risks it entails for the future and fate, rifts continued among politicians and decision-makers, while all internal and external attempts to rescue the state from the disaster to which it was drawn as a result of wrong calculations and personal differences have been stalled.”
The religious leaders “strongly condemn these wrong policies and personal differences which have drawn Lebanon to a dead end” said the statement, which was carried by the state-run National News Agency.
They called for an “immediate action to form a government with a ‘national mission’ rising above personal and individual calculations that sidestep details of quotas,” the statement said.
Addressing rival political leaders, they said: “Stop tampering with the fate of the nation and the state. The people will not forgive and history will not forget.”