Macron’s Back in Lebanon With a Call to Sweep Away Old Era

French President Emmanuel Macron returned to Beirut for the second time since a blast devastated parts of the capital last month, calling for sweeping changes to help the former French colony overcome a financial and political crisis decades in the making.

“The objective of this visit is clearly to mark an end to a political chapter,” Macron said in televised comments after arriving in Beirut late Monday.

Macron said Paris was ready to host another international aid conference for Lebanon in October but the next six weeks would be critical in determining the troubled country’s future 100 years after its current borders were declared as part of the imperial carve-up of the Middle East after World War 1.

Paris co-hosted with the United Nations an online meeting in the aftermath of the Aug. 4 explosion that drew some $300 million in disaster relief. But many donors made a point of channeling resources directly through institutions and charities on the ground, sidestepping a ruling elite accused by its people of entrenched corruption and patronage that’s emptied state coffers and brought the economy to knees.

Macron visited Lebanon two days after the blast that killed more than 180 people, injured thousands and caused as much as $4.6 billion worth of damage. He met with political leaders from across the spectrum and urged them to implement a raft of reforms to unlock billions of dollars in assistance from around the world.

Since then, only some tentative first steps have been made. They include the announcement on Tuesday that the Finance Ministry had contracted Alvarez & Marsal to perform a forensic audit on the central bank’s accounts.

Macron said he’d had no hand in picking Mustafa Adib, the academic and diplomat nominated as Lebanon’s new prime minister-elect hours before his arrival. Local media had reported that Adib was Macron’s preferred choice for the post vacated when the previous government resigned in the wake of the explosion, caused by a vast consignment of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut.

Lebanon defaulted on $30 billion in international debts this year and embarked on talks with the International Monetary Fund for help securing $10 billion in support for a proposed economic overhaul. But negotiations stalled as Lebanese officials bickered over who should carry the cost of the financial meltdown. In the meantime, the country’s currency has collapsed, triggering triple-digit food inflation and wiping out the savings of much of the population.

On Tuesday, Macron reiterated that some $11 billion in loans and grants pledged to Lebanon at the Paris-hosted CEDRE conference in 2018 would not be released unless Lebanon enacted reforms, for which he’d proposed a “follow-up mechanism” over the next few months. En route to Beirut, Macron also told Politico that Lebanon’s ruling class could face sanctions if “fundamental” change did not occur within three months.

As colonial power until 1943, France has maintained a close relationship with Lebanon over the years, hosting a number of international conferences to drum up financial support after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. Such was the disillusionment of Lebanese with their sclerotic political class that thousands signed a petition during Macron’s last visit, urging Paris to restore tutelage.

To mark Lebanon’s centenary, fighter jets flew over Beirut, coloring the sky in the red, white and green of the flag while Macron began his visit Monday by meeting national diva Fairouz and planting a cedar tree, a national symbol.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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