Without Action, the Risk of Drifting
But beyond this exceptional aid to Lebanese schools and students who constitute "a Franco-Lebanese model of excellence" and the " leading educational power in the region," and beyond France's promise not to "leave Lebanese youth alone in the face of the crisis" and "not to let the network of francophone schools collapse," Le Drian did not fail to firmly reiterate his country's "demands for reform." "I maintain this message that I brought to the three top officials," he told journalists. "This country is on the brink of an abyss. If action is not taken, it risks becoming a country adrift. There are ways for recovery and France is ready to support them."
After holding separate meetings with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Le Drian reiterated the need to " finalize (negotiations) with the International Monetary Fund," which began in mid-May and remain at a standstill, to initi-ate "electricity reform" and to ensure "transparency in public procurement." These, he said, "are France's demands and I believe I have been heard. I heard President Aoun make very strong statements about his willingness to relentlessly fight against corruption." Concerning his meeting with Cardinal Bechara el-Rahi, Le Drian said the concept of Lebanon's neutrality, ad-vocated by the Maronite patriarch, is none other than "positive neutrality." For me, this means (Lebanon) distancing (itself from the region's crises) and the sovereignty and neutrality of Leb-anon (...). We share this message completely with the patriarch," he said.
Without a doubt, Le Drian did not mince his words during his meetings with the country's top officials. "He was extremely firm, clear and demanding with regard to everyone. It was a dis-course of truth and responsibility, putting on the table the issues at stake and the need for all the players to jointly set recovery targets. Otherwise this country would go adrift," a senior French official said. And reforms are the sine qua non condition for the release of any aid to Lebanon, apart from humanitarian or educational aid. "As long as the reforms are not in place, France will not make any financial commitment in Lebanon to cover the diverse and varied def-icits, except for education and humanitarian aid. It also understood that this is what the Leba-nese wanted," the senior official said. "If there are reforms, there will be a commitment from France so that the reforms be successful and solidarity with Lebanon allows for international mobilization." The problem is that the international community today doubts the Lebanese au-thorities' ability to fulfill their promises. "The problem is (lack of) actions. Speeches are over. No one has confidence anymore. And with doubt, you can't build anything with the international community," the senior official said. Except that "France still believes (Lebanon can act). But time is passing."
Strengthening the Partnership
At Carmel Saint-Joseph, Le Drian, who was accompanied by French Ambassador Bruno Foucher, was received by the big names in francophone private education and Christian schools. Among them were the secretary general of the Secretariat of Catholic Schools and president of the Un-ion of Private Educational Institutions, Father Boutros Azar; representative of the Mission La-ïque Française, Andrée Daouk; and the director of the Mechref school, Sister Antoinette Awit. This is a school "strong in symbols," said the head of the French diplomacy, because this Chris-tian college with a French curriculum, which educates a majority of Muslim students in the Chouf, is known for promoting coexistence, peace, diversity and plurality. This school is now fighting for its survival, like so many others, given the economic and financial crisis that is rav-aging the country. It was its students who, along with their parents, joined the fire brigade to protect their school from a fire that ravaged their region at the risk of their lives, just before the popular uprising broke out last October 17.
So to these academics, who are attached to their mission and to the Francophonie, Le Drian ad-dressed a message of friendship and solidarity. Lebanon has "more than 60,000 students in the French education network, more than 330 predominantly French-speaking Christian schools and more than a million students enrolled in schools with francophone channels." This represents "10 percent of the schools in the French network in the world and 15 percent of its pupils. "France considers it necessary "to strengthen and deepen its partnership with francophone schools in Lebanon that are suffering from the economic and health crisis." The minister de-plored the great suffering of families who "can no longer afford to pay for schooling" and that of schools that "can no longer pay the salaries of their teachers," insisting on the need to "break" this cycle and "not to leave in the gutter" France's partner schools. "We are mobilized to save French education. And we will not give up," he concluded, keeping in line with the French president's goal of "doubling the number" of French education students and institutions worldwide.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of July)